In his nearly 40 years of directing features, if I had to pick Cronenberg’s best film of the last 20–it would probably be his adaptation of John Wagner and Vince Locke’s graphic novel, “A History of Violence”. Its only competition would be David’s uber-controversial “Crash” from 1996, itself an adaptation of a novel by J. G. Ballard (again, PLEASE do not confuse Cronenberg’s “Crash” with the undeserving Best Picture winner of 2005 that ripped off D.C.’s title). David’s ultimate masterpiece is still a ways off from being chronicled on this blog…but I will give you a hint. It was released in the 1980’s, it’s based on a book and it has the word “Dead” in the title. If you just googled, you will see that you have two choices, so the guess may not be as simple as you think because both of those works are superb. But more on that down the line. Among its many attributes, “A History of Violence” has a couple of the most astonishing and ingenious sex scenes ever committed to celluloid. Both are downright clever and one doesn’t truly work without the other. They are used not only to move the plot, but also implemented to define the characters at a tandem of pivotal points in the narrative. If you believe them too graphic and/or unnecessary, I have two things to say: yes, you are a prude and you’re also totally missing the point of the device. These are the types of courageous choices that have made David Cronenberg an esteemed and sought-after auteur. He pushes the envelope in a time when so many are afraid to do it. And having just freshly watched “A History of Violence” for something like the fifth or sixth time, I can assure you the celebrated couplings retain their intended power.
Tom Stall (a wondrous Viggo Mortenson) certainly seems to be living the perfect small town American life. He has a knockout lawyer wife (the seductive Maria Bello as Edie), and a loving teenage son and adorable young daughter. Tom runs a popular little coffee shop/diner, where everyone appears to know everyone’s name. If these establishing scenes come off as too “Mayberry”, bear in mind–there are supposed to. It’s deflecting you, as well as setting you up for what’s on the horizon. In fact, that was teased in the opening shots of two men talking outside of a small motel while appearing to simply be checking out and getting their car. Soon you discover that their seemingly mundane dialogue is actually masking something of unspeakable violence–including a brief disturbing moment that is the stuff of nightmares. Again, this device is used to foreshadow things to come–and it is easy to forget this introduction when the story quickly shifts focus to Tom and the family Stall. Without it though, you would be unable later to realize the stakes. And they will be high and the situation dire, indeed. It’s incredible to think that Cronenberg was able to squeeze this much background into a movie that runs a scant 90 minutes sans credits. Brevity is one of his gifts…he’s never had a motion picture that ran a minute over two hours. One night, the criminals from the opening, enter Tom’s diner and ask for coffee. Tom, at first, insists that they are about to close–but eventually accommodates when the older of the two becomes agitated. The tension is palpable here because we know what these guys are capable of, but the diner patrons certainly do not. And then things begin to escalate into something sinister and the workers and their small-town customers are thrust into a world that they have never been a party to before. These two drifters are violent armed psychotics, and they want cash and they mean business. When one of them grabs the diner’s waitress, the audience is keenly aware that she could be seconds away from a horrible demise. In a flash, Tom smashes a coffee pot into the head of the one holding the gun. Then, like a superhero, he adroitly leaps over the counter and manages to kill them both. His family, friends and neighbors are astonished. How did this middle-aged, coffee-shop owner manage such a feat? In the end though, no matter–he is deservedly hailed as a hero. He is featured on television as his heroic actions become fodder for the press. Enter Carl Fogarty (the reliably excellent Ed Harris). He visits the diner for a cup of coffee flanked by two other men. Sporting dark suits and serious demeanors, they are briefly mistaken for “more reporters”. But Fogarty seeks a different kind of story. After exchanging some niceties with Tom and recognizing him as the local hero who “stopped those bad guys”, he starts asking some pointed questions. He openly wonders why Tom so deftly handled those men, and refers to Tom as “Joey”. After insisting that his name is Tom Stall, Fogarty protests that his name is actually Joey Cusack, and that they have some unfinished business to attend to in Philadelphia. A bewildered Tom repeats that he is unaware of what Fogarty is talking about and that his name is Tom Stall and that he has never been to Philadelphia. But Carl Fogarty presses on until he eventually is asked to leave. Is this episode a case of mistaken identity, or is something much more complicated rising to the surface? And, is there a history of violence that is about to rear its ugly head?
There is a 3rd act appearance by actor William Hurt that garnered him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor…and he’s in the film for less than 10 minutes. It is a bravura performance. Howard Shore’s appropriate musical score sets the tone for those small town snippets and then successfully guides us when the situations become more macabre. Josh Olsen’s screenplay was also nominated for an Academy Award and it is a study of perfectly mounted tension-and-release. Ditto, the ever-present Ronald Sanders and his exemplary edit. And that final amazing scene at a dinner table drips with foreknowledge of the long-term future. There’s never a wasted moment. All is cohesive and nothing lingers on too long. This was a bit of a move into the mainstream for Cronenberg, but he still manages to remain true to his core vision. “A History of Violence” was my choice as the best feature of the year 2005. Time has only increased the level of its excellence. And although it remains a somewhat atypical representative of David Cronenberg’s work, it is a virtuoso entry in his 18 film canon. An incredible film.