“A History of Violence” stuns us with a terrific plot and script, great acting, and graphic violence so horrific that you may not be able to sit through it. One thing you won’t do is doze. Director David Cronenberg picks us up by our collective shirt collars and swings us around until we are breathless, not just from the violence, but from the surprises he springs along the way. He is merciless. Every single time we think the worst has past, it hasn’t.
This is no ordinary violence. It is personal violence, in some cases, violence earned. The fact that it swirls around a happy family – good citizens all – of Millbrook, Indiana makes it almost intolerable. Mr. Cronenberg asks a big question here: Can a history of violence lead to redemption, or does it inevitably lead to ruin?
Since any discussion of the plot by a mere movie critic would be inexcusable, consider the acting that makes it so good. Viggo Mortensen plays Tom Stall, proprietor of the local diner, loving husband of Edie (Maria Bello), father of Jack (Ashton Holmes) and Sarah (Heidi Hayes). This family’s home life is sketched quickly. Sensitive to each other’s needs, understanding of foibles, they are a family we want to protect.
Early on, Tom takes on two violent interlopers and becomes a local hero. Here come the questions: does violence beget violence? What effect does it have on a family? On a town? Viggo Mortensen is credible in all parts of his role - family man, affable citizen, hero, and whatever else Mr. Cronenberg lays upon his shoulders. Maria Bello plays Edie, with great spirit and with all the strength she will soon need. Edie loves her man heart and soul and lets him know it. Ashton Holmes is Jack, their son, a dream of a teenager full of love for his family, forced suddenly to face enormous moral questions.
Ed Harris is unnerving as the terrible Fogarty who wields the kind of spoken power you know will turn physical. William Hurt, in a short five minute turn, creates a fascinating eccentric from an ordinary piece of script with just a few twists of his expression and some inflections in his tone. He is supremely good as Richie Cusack. Credit also Peter MacNeill as Sheriff Sam Carney, the symbol of a town that works the way we wish all towns would.
This is a cast full of villains who revel in their grisly power, but to say that is to conjure comic book bad guys deserving of a blockbuster fireball finish. The fear these men engender is far more personal than that. It’s an ugly, nearly possible kind of fear that haunts us long after we leave. And then there are those questions about where a history of violence leads the people it touches. Those linger too – with the imprint of a kick to the head.
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