I was keen to see A History of Violence, but I also sat down to watch it with trepidation. The title of this film had me envisaging a brutal compilation of some of history’s goriest moments or something similarly horrific like a serial killer’s holiday snaps. Director David Cronenberg had a reputation from what I’d heard, as he followed up the success of this film with hard-hitting gangster story Eastern Promises, containing its own controversial fight scenes. I haven’t much stomach for excessive blood and guts.
The opening scene was indeed chilling; brilliantly so. From the very start A History of Violence declares itself to be a film that will give its actors room to act, its story room to grow and unsettle, and yet with a runtime of 96 minutes it’s no tedious slow-burner. The action kicks-off at detailed walking pace, with two shady but calm types loitering outside a motel. They exchange perfectly ordinary, mundane words. One of them disappears inside whilst the other moves the car a little further along. Then we see which man wears the trousers as the driver’s ordered to go and get water from the cooler in reception.
Inside he dawdles, the camera slowly following his casual, deliberate movements. Then he nonchalantly passes the bloody scene of carnage behind the counter to fill up his container with water. By this point the tension’s been skilfully raised to breaking point. A crying girl appears, clutching a soft toy. The man freezes. The gentle manner he adopts to reassure her, to stop her running or screaming, makes you wonder if he’s a reluctant pawn in a criminal world. Or at least he has enough heart to keep children out of his messy business. But then he gradually reaches for his gun.
The next scene starts with a girl waking from a bad dream, worrying about monsters. Viggo Mortensen appears to comfort his child, instantly establishing himself in the caring everyman role he played so well in The Road. He tells her: “There’s no such thing as monsters”. And yet the inhuman calculating coolness we saw in the preceding scene lingers hauntingly, encouraging the audience to feel differently.
The first twenty minutes of A History of Violence following its disturbing opening scene, caught me off guard for their ordinariness. Mortensen’s character Tom Stall is a simple country soul, running his store and looking out for his family. Far from being dull these establishing scenes are touching and add to the meaning of later events. Stall’s relationship with his wife, played by Maria Bello, is tenderly romantic and loving despite the length of the marriage. His daughter is cute, his friends and colleagues kind and his teenage son remarkably perceptive and intelligent for his age.
But then a handful of fleeting moments change everything. The thugs we saw at the start of the film turn up at Stall’s diner and proceed to terrorise his staff and customers. Reacting instinctively Stall intervenes to save everyone and inadvertently catapults himself to fame. His picture covers the town’s paper alongside the headline, “Local Hero”.
At this point A History of Violence’s title starts to make sense, as the film becomes a meditation on the consequences and ethics of violence. We’ve already seen some High School moments in which Stall’s son, played by Ashton Holmes, rose above the aggressive taunts of the sports hot-shot. Now Stall tries to deal with the accompanying trauma of killing a man, two men, in unforgettable close-up fashion. His family and the community rally round to comfort him. We never see the reasons behind the thugs’ killings. Cronenberg is careful to make most of the violence purely about how it makes a deep, repressed part of some people feel; how it satisfies them.
With the unwelcome arrival of more mobsters to Stall’s quiet town, the plot takes another unexpected twist. The story shifts from a thoughtful exploration of the nature of violence, to tense suffocation as the gangsters stalk Stall’s family, to suspicion and confusion as ghosts surface from Stall’s past. It’s all marvellously subtle, but hints from earlier in the film begin to make sense. Those establishing scenes really were good as you hope with Stall’s family that the demons go away. But of course they don’t.
The acting is superb. Mortensen and Bello are not just excellent as a couple early on in the idyllic stages, but wonderfully convincing and captivating later as destructive events unravel. There are memorable cameos from William Hurt and Ed Harris. The way the performers completely inhabit their characters ensures A History of Violence works masterfully as a gripping, suspenseful and action packed thriller, as well as an insightful film questioning ideas like the American Dream, identity, relationships, humanity and the past.
And the cherry on top of a filling, tasty and sumptuous slice of movie cake is a final scene as stylish, patient, subtle and moving as the opening one. If you haven’t seen A History of Violence, do so soon. It was not at all what I expected it to be and well worth a watch. Don’t be put off by the title or the 18 certificate because ultimately it’s a first-rate and surprising story. It won’t mentally scar you, merely make you think.