Saturday 3 May 2014

Movie Review: A History Of Violence (2005)

A dominant drama punctuated by short sharp brutality, A History Of Violence is an enthralling crash between a dark past and an idyllic present.

In the small rural town of Millbrook, Indiana, Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) lives a quiet family life with wife Edie (Maria Bello), teenage son Jack (Ashton Holmes) and younger daughter Sarah. When two escaped criminals attempt to violently rob Tom's main street diner, the seemingly meek and outgunned Tom springs into action, thwarts the hold-up, and kills both assailants. He is lauded as a reluctant hero, and his actions generate the usual media circus.

Even before the publicity dies down, Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris), a one-eyed big-city crime lord, rolls into town with a couple of thugs, confronting Tom and insisting that Tom is really Joey Cusack, a ruthless gang member from Philadelphia. Meanwhile, at his high school, the bullied Jack emulates his Dad and resorts to violent tactics to stand up for himself. Local Sheriff Sam Carney (Peter MacNeill) tries but fails to scare Fogarty out of town, and soon Tom and Edie are being openly intimidated by Fogarty and his goons. Edie starts to suspect that there may be more to her husband's past than she suspects, and there is plenty more bloodshed in Tom's near future.

Director David Cronenberg conjures up a tense thriller about secrets emerging slowly from the darkness, monsters that should not exist suddenly descending onto a quaint rural community. A History Of Violence is about the long threads that hold the past together with the present and the future, Tom having to confront accusations dredged up from a past that he thought he could outrun. Instead the threats multiply, first in the form of two hoodlums, then the brutally persistent Fogarty and his musclemen, and finally crime boss Richie Cusack (William Hurt) emerges from the shadows demanding a final reckoning.

At the centre of the film is the relationship between husband and wife, Tom and Edie initially a picture of happiness and playful sexiness, although tellingly Edie reveals that they did not know each other as teenagers. When the turmoil hits their household and Edie has to confront Tom's past, her current reality comes crashing down, and she is suddenly confronted with an emotional disaster. A second, violently intense sex scene between wife and a suddenly more dangerous husband is an explosion of conflicted emotion, Edie's simultaneous feelings of attraction and repulsion detonating on the staircase.

A History Of Violence does amplify the gore quotient. There are just the three episodes of extreme violence, all relatively quick, but Cronenberg dwells on the destruction and puddles of blood caused when body parts are destroyed with extreme prejudice. The disparity between the prevailing community calm and the carnage of Tom's past blowing into town is brilliantly jarring.

The three central performances are simply outstanding. Viggo Mortensen gives Tom the outward appearance of calm normalcy but with the added rising panic behind the eyes as his chosen life starts to disintegrate. Maria Bello brings Edie to life as the wife deeply in love with her husband, gradually discovering what that devotion is going to have to mean. Edie undergoes the most turbulent transformation in the film, and Bello rides the full circle of her character's anxiety, shock ultimately replaced by pragmatic commitment. And in a relatively short role that leaves a lasting impression, Ed Harris has never been better as the menacing Fogarty, his appearance as threatening as his smooth delivery.

A History Of Violence shocks the present with an unwelcome blast from the past, setting up a gloriously uncertain future.

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