If you’ve ever wanted to watch a master director “Cronenberg” up a suburban landscape a little less weird than the one shown on Rick and Morty, this is a great place to start, and we’ve got some thoughts about the movie as well. But first, watch a movie trailer from 2005 that’ll make you realize how much trailers have improved over the last decade:
Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) looks like he has it all. He’s a small town diner owner with a loving wife (Maria Bello), a dutiful son (Ashton Holmes) who talks his way out of the bullying he gets at school, and a daughter who’s cute as a button even when she’s freaking out about the monsters under her bed. One night, two crooks (Stephen McHattie and some dude who really, really looks like Jason Clarke but isn’t) change everything for him and his family — they try to rob his diner, and in order to save his customers and staff, Tom kills the both of them in self-defense. He’s hailed as a small-town hero, and his story is broadcast across the country. Weeks later, a weird man with a damaged eye (Ed Harris) and a group of thugs show up at the diner, calling Tom “Joey” and hinting at horrible violent deeds left in his house. His wife has no idea what the man’s talking about, and Tom threatens him and calls the cops. The man won’t leave his family alone, and they’ll be pushed to the edge both by his knowledge and Tom’s violent tendencies.
It’s tempting to relegate A History of Violence to the ever-growing pile of “crime” movies, which is a moniker that seems to collapse and absorb the barriers between genres (much like the superhero genre), but Cronenberg draws more from the imagery and pacing of a classic western than anything else. Mortensen’s tense front-lawn standoff with Ed Harris’s mobster and his hired goons near the 50-minute mark is full of Leone-styled shots; the former’s shotgun close in the foreground, with the mobsters face him in the back- and it’s truly fantastic to watch shit blow up in that scene on an emotional and physical level.
Cronenberg’s violence always emphasizes the meatiness of the human body, and while that’s true in this film (look no further than McHattie’s shredded face after his botched robbery attempt), the director’s also interested in exploring emotional violence: Namely the effect one’s miserable lies can have on their family. Sure, we may not be necessarily hiding our pasts as psychotic mobsters, but there’s something in there that most can relate to. But still, violence permeates every frame of this film, no matter what kind. Here, listen to Harris talk this (or hit) out at a TIFF junket back in 2005:
That might be the best clip from any film festival panel ever.
Harris brings the same kind of bizarro energy to the role that he brought to that event, and he’s simultaneously goofy and threatening as Fogerty, who Stall/Cusack nearly blinded (with barbed wire!) years before the events of the film. His first scene in the film, where he taunts Mortensen at the diner he owns, is also funny as hell, though it takes a sharp turn into some pretty dark territory. Mortensen intentionally isn’t given much to do in terms of acting during the film’s first forty minutes aside from react to things (Bello in a cheerleader costume, the crazy thieves in his diner), but that’s to set him up as the quintessential straight American ideal of the masculine small business owner. Everything after that, from slapping his son right after to admonishing him for beating up a bully, to the eventual reveal and the following physical transformations (his voice! his demeanor!) that accompany the revival of Joey Cusack, is absolutely fantastic.
Bello is also great as Mortensen’s wife, and it’s a shame that her career hasn’t seen her tackle another role as deep and as interesting as this one. They play well off of each other, and their contrasting sex scenes (one sweet and flavored like American pornography, and the other full of the kind of hate-fucking you expect from European movies) are fascinating. Cronenberg, it seems, actually had sex with his wife in front of the cast and crew to prevent awkwardness on set, and his leads attack each other with what feels like a real passion. But yet, Mortensen and Bello aren’t the standouts here.
Yes, this movie is straight up stolen from the rest of the brilliant cast by a 10-minute William Hurt performance, worthy of his eventual Oscar nomination and perhaps worthy of a win. He’s straight up brilliant as Richie Cusack, Mortensen’s crime boss brother, who wants to track his long-lost “broheim” down to pay for all of the setbacks his hyper-violent actions towards his fellow mobsters caused for Richie over the years. Hurt’s indignation at how his hired hoods could possibly fuck up an operation as simple as strangling a dude with a wire is just lovely, which taps into a weird vein of empathy with how ineffective these faceless stormtroopers are. It’s perfect casting, giving Hurt a type of villain role which he’s never really been allowed to play before; we know he’s threatening and scary, but he can be funny as well. He’s the only part of the damn film that lets you laugh at it without feeling like the rest of the audience is going to throw a soda at your head. It makes him feel real in a way that stands out in the silver screen unreality of Cronenberg’s suburban world.
That unreality, one of easily-coded relationships and symbols, and clearly-defined rules and roles, is exactly what A History of Violence seeks to annihilate. Though to be clear, it’s not doing this only out of a sense of a satirical fuck-you to small town America, the film’s looking to see what truth can lie inside of all of the lies. It pushes the family unit to its breaking point to see if it can survive the destruction of their day-to-day life and still find the capacity to endure through those struggles.
It’s a tense little thriller full of great standoffs, excellent performances, and fascinating direction. Would it rank in the top five Cronenberg movies? It’s hard to say, but it’s close to cracking the top five, depending on whether or not you adore The Dead Zone or Eastern Promises or something else a little more. But it’s a brilliant vision of our country by one of the western world’s best filmmakers, and it’s essential viewing.
‘A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE’ :: Friday, April 7 at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, 290 Harvard St. in Brookline, MA :: 11:59 p.m., all ages, $12.25 :: Advance tickets :: Coolidge event page :: Note: Another Cronenberg film, 2007’s Eastern Promises, shows on April 8