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  • 17

    A History of Violence
    Reviews; Posted on: 2007-11-17 11:06:55 [ Printer friendly / Instant flyer ]
    Western Voices reviews

    by Trevor Caden Lynch

    (Warning: I summarize the whole plot.)

    David Cronenberg's A History of Violence (New Line Cinema, 2005) is truly a superb movie, with a tight and economical script (the whole story is told in 96 minutes), a remarkably subtle and gripping performance by Viggo Mortensen (his best ever, in my opinion), excellent performances from the rest of the cast, and an unostentatiously elegant directorial style (unmarred by the middlebrow pretentiousness and penchant for the juvenile and repulsive that ruin most of Cronenberg's movies).

    The hero of A History of Violence is Tom Stall, played by Viggo Mortenen. As the movie opens, Stall is portrayed as very much a white everyman. He is a family man with a wife (Edie, played by Maria Bello) and two children (Jack, played by Ashton Holmes and Sarah, played by Heidi Hayes). He lives in Millbrook, Indiana, a small, apparently white town in the Midwest. (Only one black appears, a TV news reporter from out of town.)

    Tom is middle class, but a little above middle, as he owns a small business (a diner, where he mans the counter, coffee-pot, and cash register) and his wife Edie is a small-town lawyer. Both Tom and Edie wear crosses around their necks, which are clearly visible in several scenes, so it is impossible to mistake them for anything but Christians.

    Like a lot of American men today, Tom is a bit of a wimp. Physically, he is not soft or effeminate, but fit and manly. Yet his manner is hesitant and self-deprecating, his speech laconic and soft, his voice sometimes high-pitched and pleading. His wife, by contrast, is articulate, outspoken, and confident. In many scenes, she does the talking for Tom. Tom is sexually passive while his wife is sexually aggressive. In a rather subtle touch, throughout most of the movie Tom cannot get his masculine pickup truck to start, so his wife drives him to work in her maternal station-wagon.

    The Stalls' teenage son is a bit of a wimp too. Like his father, he has an athletic physique and athletic ability, but not an athlete's self-confidence. He is bullied by some jocks, who call him a "fag," and he replies only with sarcasm. His verbal self-confidence comes from his mother the lawyer.

    But we see there is more to Tom than meets the eye when two thugs hold up his diner at closing time. (The robbers have already been established as sadistic killers.) When it becomes apparent that they want to take more than just money, Tom, in a thrilling, cathartic explosion of violence, kills them both.

    Immediately, Tom is hailed by the news media as a hero, but he shuns the acclaim and attention in his soft-spoken, self-deprecating manner. He just wants life to go back to normal. Unfortunately, some people just won't let him.

    A few days later, when the diner has reopened, three well-dressed but sinister out-of-towners drop by. The leader, Carl Fogerty (played by Ed Harris), has a hideously scarred face. Fogerty insists that Tom Stall is actually named Joey Cusak, that he is from Philadelphia, and that they have met before. Tom, somewhat flustered, denies their allegations. Then Edie steps in and tells them firmly to leave.

    Once the trio departs, Edie calls the Sheriff, who pulls the men over and tells them to leave town. Then he looks into their identities. They are gangsters from Philadelpia with long criminal records. Suspense mounts as Fogerty and his men stalk and menace the Stall family. Fogerty tells Edie that Tom was involved in organized crime (his brother Richie Cusak is a big mobster), that Tom has killed before, and that it was Tom who scarred his face and blinded him in one eye.

    Meanwhile, Jack Stall, no doubt imitating his father's heroism in the diner, decides to fight back against the bullies who have been picking on him. He is suspended and sent home from school. Tom first rebukes his son for using violence. He tells him that in their family they do not solve problems by hitting people. Jack hurls back, "No, in this family we kill them." Stung, Tom slaps Jack's face, and Jack storms out of the house.

    Jack returns a while later as a hostage of Fogerty and his men. Fogerty offers to trade Jack for his father. He tells Tom that he wants to take him to Philadelphia and on a ride "down memory lane." Both destinations sound ominous.

    Tom complies long enough to secure Jack's release. Then he fights. Tom handily kills Fogerty's two goons, but is wounded by Fogerty. As he lies on the ground, Fogerty towering over him about to deliver the coup de grāce, Tom says that he should have killed Fogerty back in Philadelphia when he had the chance. So Tom is Joey after all. But before Fogerty can fire, he is felled from behind by a shotgun blast. It is Jack. He solved the problem, Stall style.

    Edie and Jack are naturally horrified to discover that Tom Stall is really Joey Cusak, a mob-connected killer. Jack responds with more smart talk. Edie's reaction runs the gamut from retching (the only scene that really rings false) to weeping and screaming to standing up for her husband when the Sheriff begins asking questions.

    Tom, for his part, makes it clear that he did more than merely change his name. It was a process of psychological death and rebirth. He says he went out to the desert (symbolically a place of purification) and killed Joey, and he was only fully reborn when he married Edie. This is a very significant point, for the whole film dwells on the contrast between bands of unmarried men and married men with families, and what makes possible the transition.

    News Source: The Occidental Observer


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