2005’s A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE is one of those rare films in which the whole is equal by the sum of its dazzling parts. The cast, featuring Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, John Hurt and Ashton Holmes, is exemplary. The direction, editing, filming, timing is flawless. The story, adapted by John Olson and based loosely on the 1997 black and white graphic novel of the same name by John Wagner and Vince Locke, is riveting—an improvement over the slightly out of focus original.
The film, marketed as a crime thriller, is really a western, without the usual period piece accoutrements. It takes place mostly in a modern small Midwestern town, and comes at the viewer in three parts. In the first, the audience is introduced to a pair of loathsome psychopaths without any redeeming qualities downplayed by Stephen McHattie and Greg Bryk. After that famous four minute sunshine-to-nightmare scene at the motel, we are introduced to the protagonist and his family—miles away—as the parents and older brother offer the younger daughter sage advice for coming to grips with the her nightmare monsters. Obviously the loving family and the uber-crazies are on a collision course. Before the inevitable confrontation, we taste the almost too perfect relationship between Mortensen and Bello with a bit of kinky sex when the kids are busy elsewhere, and get a glimpse of the teen angst the Holmes character experiences by ticking off the school bully and his gang.
The second part of the film begins with the notoriety the Mortensen’s character, Tom Stall receives after dispatching the crazies with brutal efficiency during a failed rape-murder-hold-up attempt at Stall’s diner. This unwanted publicity emboldens the son to the point he beats the crap out of the school bully but it also attracts unwanted attention for the father. Enter the Ed Harris character, Carl Fogarty, a disfigured Philadelphia mobster and his henchmen. Tom Stall, it seems, is a dead ringer for the long missing Crazy Joie Cusack, the cause of Fogarty’s disfigurement. Again tensions build until the inevitable confrontation, the second a bit bigger than the first, between the gangsters and the family.
The third part of the film, like the second, starts with Tom Stall in the hospital recovering from his wounds. His wife confronts him demanding to know who he really is—great line, “I saw you turn into Joie Cusack before my eyes.” Another kinky scene follows shortly thereafter in which the genteel but firm Ms. Stall has some rough sex with her husband’s alter ego. Tom/Joie is banished from their bedroom, receives a midnight phone call from his mobster big brother—“are you gonna come see me or do I have to go there?” There follows another confrontation, bigger still, and some great lines from John Hurt as Richie Cusack, a not-too-overly-bright upper echelon hoodlum who lives in style but still blames his little brother for messing up his prospects. Everything concludes in a classic dinner scene when Tom comes home—everything is back to normal but normal will never be the same again…
A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE is one of those rare films one sees repeatedly, simply to admire the skill and craftsmanship that went into its making. Every little detail tells a story, from the change in vehicles the two psychos drive to the precocious daughter setting a place for daddy at the table. Every secondary character is interesting, every fight scene is brutally real (so real, in fact, that the US version was toned down from the European release.) It is truly a remarkable film.
Available at your local library and from Amazon.com.
© 2013 Paul L. Bates