THE LIVE ZONE : David Cronenberg’s ‘A History of Violence’ [10/10]


Cronenberg delivers a flat-out masterpiece: this is his most brilliant, rounded and satisfying film (and I say that as a longtime strong admirer of The Fly, The Dead Zone, The Brood, eXistenZ and others); a masterclass for film directors (so far above, say, Ron Howard's "work" on Cinderella Man that the two aren't really even the same species any more); the year's most gripping, shattering cinematic experience.

Deserves all the nominations and Oscars it probably won't get (Mortensen and Bello, scriptwriter Olson, Cronenberg). Savage intelligence, intelligent savagery, suffocating tension… Tears in eyes, I literally staggered and stumbled from the cinema, catching my breath in the sunlight. If you get the chance to see this film today, see this film today.



Now in his seventh decade, director David Cronenberg has carved such a vivid sub-genre of dystopian 'body-horror' that any film of his which doesn't feature grotesque physical distortions is instantly branded 'out of character'. But these 'out of character' works now make up such a hefty chunk of his output that it makes sense to instead divide his work into two camps: on one hand the wild-and-wonderful excursions that are Shivers (1975), Rabid (1976), The Brood (1979), Scanners (1980), Videodrome (1982), The Fly (1986), Dead Ringers (1988), Naked Lunch (1991), Crash (1996) and eXistenZ (1999); on the other the more 'controlled' and accessible fare to be found in Fast Company (1979), The Dead Zone (1983), M.Butterfly (1993) and Spider (2002).

A History of Violence – adapted from the 1997 graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke – falls squarely into the latter category. While reportedly much less violent than Wagner and Locke's version, there are a couple of grisly moments here – most notably when we see the result of a gun going off in someone's face very early on – but otherwise there's little to indicate that we're watching a "Cronenberg picture." Unless, that is, the viewer is an admirer of Stephen King adaptation The Dead Zone, which A History of Violence (semi-consciously?) resembles and indirectly references to extent that the two films can be seen as non-identical twins, or perhaps estranged 'brothers', separated by more than two decades…

The most obvious parallel is the setting and resulting 'look': Cronenberg naturally gravitates towards urban or dystopian-suburban locations, and The Dead Zone and A History of Violence are the sole exceptions to this rule. Both were filmed in rural Ontario, in villages notable for their russet-leaved late-autumn beauty and bucolic white barns: Violence, while set in the fictional settlement of Millbrook, Indiana, was shot (by cinematographer Peter Suschitzky) in Millbrook, Ontario. The Aaron Coplandish score of the film – by frequent Cronenberg collaborator Howard Shore – harks back, meanwhile, to Michael Kamen's similar work on The Dead Zone. Kamen in fact only replaced Shore at the insistance of the film's nervy producers seeking a 'name' composer – in 1983, The Dead Zone was Cronenberg's most expensive project; in 2005, the same is now true of A History of Violence.

In both instances, Cronenberg became attached to the project not through any burning personal desire, but as a director "for hire"; both examine the painful interface between the personal and the political, in which the wider world impinges upon the narrow sphere of an individual; both are literary adaptations about small-town people who are, to all outward appearances, grindingly normal – The Dead Zone's psychically gifted/cursed protagonist bears the name 'Johnny Smith,' and thus stands out in a Cronenberg filmography where major characters are routinely called things like Adrian Tripod, Dan Keloid, Nola Carveth and Darryl Revok. The hero of A History of Violence also has a decidedly quotidian moniker in Tom Stall ('Tom McKenna' in the source novel, one among many changes from page to screen). Although whether or not this is his real name becomes the crux of the film.

Stall (Viggo Mortensen) runs a friendly, nondescript Midwestern diner – he's a popular member of the community, along with his wife Edie (Maria Bello), teenage son Jack (Ashton Holmes) and adorable little daughter Sarah (Heidi Hayes). All seems unremarkable in Tom's life – until one day a pair of thugs turn up at the diner with larcenous, perhaps even homidical intent. Tom's lightning-fast reactions and self-sacrificing bravery save the day – and soon his picture is all over the national news. And soon there are more unwelcome visitors at the diner: a scarred, menacing gangster named Carl Fogarty* (Ed Harris) and his two goonish colleagues. Carl is convinced that Tom is actually Joey Cusack, a fellow hoodlum who disappeared from the Philadelphia underworld two decades before. Tom politely denies this outlandish suggestion – but Fogarty and company are dead set on taking 'Joey' back to face the music…

It's to Cronenberg's credit, and that of his screenwriter Josh Olson, that A History of Violence is by no means a "twist picture" which pivots entirely upon whether or not Stall is who he claims to be. There's a great detail of thematic substance and subtext (not least about America's violent past, present and future) packed into this lean 96-minute running-time – hats off to editor Ronald Sanders – and the devastating final reel poses at least as many questions as it answers. Now into his seventh decade, Cronenberg has evolved into a startlingly accomplished film-maker – one confident enough in his ability and his material to avoid any of the smart-alecky, attention-seeking flourishes which mar the work of so many more award-laden film-makers.

A fruitful comparison is with Sam Mendes' Road to Perdition: both are adaptations of graphic novels featuring Irish-American gangsters, and tracing the way violence impacts upon the male psyche and informs father-son relationships. But whereas Mendes became bogged down in picturesque sentimentality as his movie sprawled beyond the two-hour mark, Cronenberg's approach is one of cool, crystalline efficiency.

A History of Violence is punctuated with breathtaking scenes of crunching, visceral action – and also features what is perhaps the most remarkable intercourse scene since Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now: a sequence in which Mortensen and Bello (another rock-solid turn from this increasingly impressive actress) viciously fight on a flight of stairs, then quickly fall into passionate love-making, then separate on hostile terms. At two points Mortensen grabs one of Bello's ankles as she walks up the stairs – but the two gestures have completely different meanings, completely different impacts upon the audience. This is mature, intelligent cinema of a kind very seldom seen in either multiplexes or arthouses** – and it's Cronenberg's achievement that A History of Violence can (and will) play in both settings.

This is also partly due to the 'star name' at the head of the cast: though Mortensen isn't exactly a Tom Cruise or a George Clooney, A History of Violence's ad-campaigns have sensibly emphasised his involvement – trading on his sudden 'hot' status in the wake of the Lord of the Rings trilogy (and, to a lesser extent, Hidalgo.) Now 46, Mortensen has had a truly bizarre career in the 18 years since his breakthrough in Renny Harlin's Prison with numerous ups and downs along the way, but this is most definitely a triumph for the actor. He's brilliantly cast as a character who must radiate ambiguity, ordinariness and inner strength, and his latter scenes achieve a truly moving intensity – an appropriate ending for a masterpiece of a film that grips, holds and then shatters our emotions.

Neil Young
28th September, 2005

A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE : [10/10] : USA (US-Can) 2005 : David CRONENBERG : 96 mins
seen at Cineworld cinema, Sunderland (UK), 23rd September 2005 – public show [original rating – 9/10]; and at the same cinema, 1st October, 2005 – public show [rating revised to 10/10]

* The name of this character is given in various sources as "Fogarty" and "Fogaty" – the latter presumably to avoid confusion with real-life superbikes champ Carl Fogarty (or is it a nod to Cronenberg's beloved motorsports..?). The end credits spell the name "Fogarty"

According to Michael Sicinski: 'After its debut at Cannes, where many American critics expected it to take a prize, director Benoit Jacquot revealed that he alone among the jurors thought it was something special. Others on the jury (including Agn├Ęs Varda, Toni Morrison, and jury head Emir Kusturica) just dismissed it as a Hollywood genre piece and were puzzled as to why it was included in Competition.'
[For the record, the other jurors were Nandita Das, John Woo, Salma Hayek, Javier Bardem and Fatih Akin.]

   A sober analysis bookended with breathless preamble and coda? Quite fitting for a film which so determinedly contrasts the rational/normal/quotidian with the exiciting/excited/exotic/violent…
   On a second viewing, it really does hit you: this really is head and shoulders above anything Cronenberg has done before. And you wonder, how much credit should go to scriptwriter Josh Olson? He's done a phenomenal job adapting the graphic novel, making numerous alterations along the way (scaling down the violence, for one).
   I don't know any of his previous credits, but clearly 2001's Instinct To Kill aka The Perfect Husband (tagline: 'He's on the loose… hungry for blood') wasn't the worst preparation he could have had for this project. Indeed, can it really be coincidence that he was also responsible for A Moment of Silence, On The Border, Hitman's Run and the eminently Cronenbergian-sounding Infested?!
   What also hits you second time around is the humour. For such a grim, violent affair there are laughs to be found in almost every scene – even if many of them derive from the sheer horrifying absurdity/extremity of what goes on, the incongruity of the explosions of crunching, bone-mashing nastiness against such a bucolic backdrop. Cronenberg has always been a funnier – or rather droller – director than his dour reputation would suggest, and A History of Violence is only a millimetre away from sitcom at times.
    But there's so much depth here – astonishing that Variety's chief reviewer Todd McCarthy should complain at the lack of "complexity". The story can be read as a response to current US politics, or those of 1620-1776: this is pure frontier stuff, plunging deep and brave into the dark American grain. In the shadow of Cronenberg and Olson's stunning work (not to mention that of Mortensen and Bello), all other films of 2005 will probably seem wan, anaemic affairs.

Click here for our review of Cronenberg's 1975 breakthrough Shivers
Readers of a nervous disposition are warned that this page contains extremely disturbing images.

Or click here for Neil Young's article on A History Of Violence's transition from page to screen

Then he screamed leave me alone, I'm a family man
And my bark is much worse than my bite
He said leave me alone, I'm a family man
But if you push me too far, I just might