The hardest part about taking an anti-violence stance in a visual medium like film is that the violence itself is so entertaining to watch that the message gets lost amid all the excitement. Instead of steering us away from the carnage, they usually end up whetting our appetites for it, and bigger body counts beget better the box office numbers. We helped pioneer and perfect big screen bloodshed to the point that violent films are now as American as apple pie, and our craving is insatiable.
There are plenty who charge that we've become completely desensitized to cinematic violence, but Canadian auteur David Cronenberg begs to differ, and 'A History of Violence' is as compelling a counterpoint as anyone could hope to make. Based on the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke, adapted for the screen by Josh Olson, Cronenberg's new masterpiece is as darkly brilliant and full of taut suspense as it is disturbing. No stranger to gore, this time Cronenberg takes his fascination with the corporeal and turns it inward, going beyond the biological manifestations of the mind's nightmares explored in his earlier films to focus more on the psychological turmoil itself.
Set in idyllic small town America, the type of place where everybody knows your name and nobody locks their doors, the film's violence sneaks up on us, festering below the surface and slowly poisoning the lives of everyone it touches. It starts with a pair of traveling murderers who point their weapons at the wrong man, local diner owner Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), spurring him to save his customers and dispense with the killers. Tom's heroics put him in the national spotlight, and back in the sights of some mobsters from his past led by an icily menacing Ed Harris forcing him to confront the demons he thought he'd buried. Violence creeps into his family life his son Jack (Ashton Holmes) discovers his own rage in a graphic outburst with the school bully, and his wife Edie (Maria Bello) starts to question who he really is as Tom's bloody trail takes his east.
Rather than giving us some verbose dissection of violence, Cronenberg lets the images speak for themselves, taking the traditionally escapist action genre and holding it up to us as a mirror. The slick car chases and beautifully choreographed fight sequences that we know and love are nowhere to be found, the stylized effects that turn death and destruction into palatable entertainment are stripped away, leaving the cruelty and brutality exposed. Instead of elaborate set pieces, Cronenberg fires staccato bursts of violence at us without warning quick, clumsy and undeniably grisly, just as if we'd witnessed them unfolding on the streets. The fact that the violence is justifiable and sometimes even necessary doesn't make it any less ugly.
But what makes the film exponentially more striking is its intimacy. Cronenberg never lets us pull away or distance ourselves, putting us so close to the characters and violence that it feels as if we're witnessing it firsthand, happening to people we know. The intimacy is a testament to both Cronenberg's direction and the superb work of his cast. Mortensen and Bello give exceptionally daring performances their sexual relationship is perhaps the healthiest Cronenberg has ever set to celluloid. Their love scene is so honestly intimate that we feel uncomfortable intruding on their privacy, and its juxtaposition with the cold, bruising sex later on is a powerful example of how completely violence has spilled over into their lives.
Stimulating us with Tom's heroics only to disgust us with the aftermath, Cronenberg pushes us to question ourselves and our reactions, and once he's drawn us in, he refuses to let us retreat to a more comfortable distance. The result is a tense thriller that both excites and frightens us, no just by what's unfolding onscreen, but by our response to it as well. Because there's no escape from the brutality onscreen, no way to simply write it off as action flick theatrics, it forces us to confront it, to really think about the consequences of a violent history both Tom's and our own.