A History of Violence (2005)
Directed by David Cronenberg

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * * ½

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When Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), a restaurateur in a small town, kills two men who attempt to rob his diner, he is lauded by the media as a hero. Unfortunately, this exposure brings him to the attention of a gangster, Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris), who believes that Tom is a completely different person, a thug named Joey Cusack. Tom must subsequently defend his wife Edie (Maria Bello) and his two children against the threat presented by Fogarty and his henchman. At the same time, Edie begins to suspect that there may be more to her husband's past than he has admitted to her, which puts an increasingly severe strain on their relationship.

As fascinating a film maker as David Cronenberg often is, there is surprisingly little to say about his A History of Violence. Although it is generally engaging, it is never inspired.

The movie is, almost certainly, the director's most conventional work to date. The narrative is straightforward; the images are realistic, and there is no attempt to create a sense of unnerving delusion. Sadly, as it lacks any distinctiveness, the film, even though it is competently made and often affecting, is consistently ordinary.

Actually, as much as it saddens me to say it, there is quite a bit in A History of Violence that is painfully clichéd. Tom's son's troubles with a bully at his school and his violent defence of himself after his father's brutal defence of his diner are pretty hammy, as is a scene depicting Tom running home along a deserted country road and across an empty field when he thinks that his wife is in danger and others revealing his nearly superhuman ability to dispatch his enemies. Such elements certainly do not ruin the film, but they can be distracting.

In fact, most everything about the movie is good in a mediocre sort of way. I cannot, for example, say that I was ever stunned with the look of A History of Violence. The film is usually well crafted and effective visually, but it is never suffused with any real beauty. That said, the director has coordinated his images and camera techniques with his narrative so that the movie's visual qualities do add to the story's impact. He brings out the homely charm of Tom's ordinary life, the terrible tension that arises when he confronts the gangsters threatening him, and the horrific ferocity of the acts of violence in which the protagonist engages.

What is more, the performances of all the actors are, at the least, decent, and several are genuinely impressive. The leads, in particular, acquit themselves well. Many of the supporting characters are, admittedly, either forgettably realized or even presented nearly as caricatures, but none of them are likely to annoy the moviegoer.

Regrettably, and this is not the actors’ fault but the director's, the viewer is never allowed to engage with any of these persons. The horror Edie feels as she becomes increasingly aware that her husband may not be the man she believes him to be is evoked but is never developed. The viewer never sees how she deals with her new knowledge. Her children's minds are even more opaque than hers. Except for a few scenes showing her son's ambivalence towards his father, in that he both defends him and expresses anger towards him, their feelings remain wholly inaccessible. Even Tom is never really effectively delineated. There is no doubt that he loves his family and fears the threats with which he is being presented, but what conflict occurs in his mind remains a mystery.

A History of Violence is certainly worth seeing, but for those who know what Cronenberg is capable of, it may be a little disappointing.

Review by Keith Allen

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