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History of violence


Tonight I saw David Cronenberg’s film History of Violence . This is based on the ultra-violent graphic book (‘comic’), with the same title, written by John Wagner and illustrated by Vince Locke.

The central character, Tom Stall, portrayed by Viggio Mortensen , is a laid-back, kindly father with an electric-charged capacity to kill that lies well-hidden until needed. Tom is a psychopathic, ex-killer who changes his identity to become the loving all-American dad. Through a chance event he is forced to reveal his past identity to associates from his troubled past and then to his family. The family, initially uncomfortable with this past, come to accept it in a touching closing scene. By this time he has essentially ‘killed off’ his past.

The movie has something of the structure of an old-fashioned Western and a ‘comic book’ feel to it. Although it is very different and much less stylised, it reminded me of Sin City. Mortensen is the all-American hero (quiet, resilient, a man of action), Maria Bella is his devoted wife and mob members William Hurt (his brother) and Ed Harris comprise his menacing past.

The movie has been subject to extensive and very mixed reviews – some are here. A good factual account of the plot and its relation to the book is in a Wikipedia entry here. (Generally, it interests me that so much useful information about quality current movies can now be found in Wikipedia).

History of Violence is a mainstream movie with sex (both violent and playful) and lots of killing that is not gratuitous but is intended to make you think. I was uncertain how I would react to the movie given Cronenberg’s reputation for violence but did enjoy it. I thought Mortensen particularly good As Tom but the casting is generally good and under strong direction by Cronenberg. This movie will probably make mega-bucks given the global (not only American) preference for violent movies but it is not an exploitation movie based on graphic violence.

Update: The New Republic Online review of this movie (here), by Christopher Orr, argues that Cronenberg lets the ‘cat out of the bag’ too early by revealling Tom’s true identity at the halfway point. From that point the ‘suspense leaks’. Maybe – he could never have revealled his identity and still ‘cleaned up’ his past.

2 comments to History of violence

  • Mister Peabody

    I feel it is a rather futile exercise to draw comparisons with books, comics, whatever, as a film always has an identity and a life of its own (rather like your kids after they turn 16). What could one gain, for example, from comparing The Killers http://www.filmsite.org/killers.html directed by Robert Siodmak, or indeed, the Don Siegel version http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0058262/ to their paper cousin, a Hemingway short story, which incidentally only deals with the first scene in the Siodmak movie and is even less acquainted with the Siegal flick. But that’s no reason to be negative about either of the movies, each one a classic.

    History of violence is a fine movie becase it works on many levels and it makes the spectator think, i.e. speculate on its subcontextual meaning.

    I took away the rather pedestrian notion that it is an allegory of the American psyche, and in that it is very similar to David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. It works on that level for me.

  • hc

    Thanks Jack, The movie to me ran like a play and I thought that was worthy of comment. It also had a comic-book type of exaggeration about it – it was all a bit extreme. And I liked it – yeah it made me think about – what you call ‘subtextual meaning’. Violence, compassion, heroics. Was Tom’s change of character plausible? This seemed to come out of a comic. But like you I found this a fine movie. Cheers.