10.06.2005

Cronenburg Finds His Groove

A brilliant, visceral exhibition of potential and kinetic aggression, David Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence” alternatively creeps and explodes across the screen. In finally realizing his vast filmmaking promise, the idiosyncratic director employs the most common locations—a nondescript small town, a diner, a front yard, an office, a staircase—to create a Western of exurbia that presents American brutality as horrible, gory, sexy, fearsome, and unforgettable.

As the story opens, Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) has the perfect life: He makes a good living running the local diner; dotes on a teenage son, Jack (Eliot Holmes) and a young daughter, Sarah (Heidi Hayees); and is doted on by his gorgeous wife (Maria Bello). Their serenity is broken when two killers on the run attempt to rob Stall’s diner, prodding him into an instinctive and brutal response that serves as the film’s inciting incident.

The wraithlife form of Dan Fogarty, a Philadelphia mob boss played with creepy understatement by Ed Harris, blows into Stall’s restaurant the following day, bringing with him two goons and an aura of trouble past and yet to come. Fogarty believes Stall is Joey Cusack, a long-disappeared Philly hood who disfigured Fogarty’s face years prior, and he intends to shake the everyman proprietor into remembering, and perhaps suffering vengeance for, Cusack’s violent history. Thus the film builds towards the inevitable breaking point, as Stall’s immovable object dances around a date with Fogarty’s unstoppable force.

Cronenburg manipulates the tone and pacing to create unpredictable and dangerous surf. Flipping between well-wrought scenes of terse dialogue, which predominate the film and generate great psychological and physical tension, and several lightning-quick sequences of disturbing violence, the director establishes a routine in which the anxiety crests almost imperceptibly toward a bursting whitecap. When the explosive releases finally do hit, they wash over in the blink of an eye, leaving the audience wet but unsatisfied. Yet these incidents, brutal and gruesome candy-coated entertainments, seem both frighteningly real and laughably cartoonish at the same time. Cronenburg knows exactly what the audience wants, yet knows to make us wait for it, and wait some more, and then, finally, deliver all the cinematic mayhem we could ever dream of in a flash, before yanking it away to start the cycle anew.

The cast is uniformly impressive, with Mortensen pitch-perfect as a watchful guard dog one would happily take home to mom. Ed Harris and William Hurt, who appears late in the film in a small, voluble role, chew the scenery without going overboard. But it is Maria Bello, playing a woman coming apart at the seams as she comes to terms with the husband she never knew, who grounds the film with a strong emotional center. Edie is that rare and wondrous beast, a strong second-fiddle wife in a film focused squarely on machismo. She asserts her own marital aggression early on in a cheerleader sex fantasy, and during an intensely passionate and violent coupling on hard wooden stairs, Bello meets her man halfway, even as her post-coital disgust reveals a vast inner pride. A final acquiescence dims neither the strength of her character nor the force of her performance.

Based on a comic novel of the same name by John Wagner and Vince Locke, Josh Olson’s screenplay does an excellent job of getting out of the way of the characters and the story. An unmistakable allegory of America, “A History of Violence” could very easily have slipped into philosophical rhapsodizing or bathos laden self-importance, but Olson steers clear of grand pronouncements, presenting a single, well-drawn, and not so unique family that happens to be caught in a vice.

The movie does not end as much as draw a curtain on the Stall clan, who are undoubtedly headed toward more choppy seas. Cronenburg, after stretching our concept of reality throughout, returns in closing to life’s two constants: hope and fear. They mingle in the characters’ eyes, linger over the closing credits, and settle in the hearts of viewers contemplating their own survival.

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