David Cronenberg’s latest is easily the most ‘mainstream’ of his films, although I get the feeling the general public’s still going to have trouble digesting this hyperviolent, deliberately straightforward piece. The marketing seemed to present this as a traditional thriller, on par with say Firewall, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. A History of Violence had most of the audience in my cinema laughing uncomfortably, squirming at the gore, and generally sounded disappointed by the time the credits rolled.
Cronenberg certainly proved with Spider that he has the capacity to spread his filmic wings, and A History of Violence has a rather ‘mundane’ narrative, at least when compared to The Fly or Existenz.
The film, of course, works on multiple levels. The plot is simplistic in a good way: it resembles a contemporary blood drenched fairy tale or myth. It’s not hard to see the predicament of the Stall family as an analogy for any modern society that was founded in violence. Deliberately heavy handed in the same way societal morals can be, A History of Violence is about the lies we tell to children – that there are no monsters, and that there’s nothing to be afraid of. As we grow we discover that this isn’t true, but it’s ok because there are people out there (the news media, classification bodies and governments) that will shield us from the truth, and for the majority of the time we’re thankful and even complicit in this deception. The violence contained within the film is horrifying – but only because Western tastes traditionally (and paradoxically) glorify violence but not its consequences.
This is a strong, powerful film, yes, but I wasn’t completely immersed in the plight of the Stall family. I felt held at arm’s length for much of the film, and was also waiting for something that never happened. It’s hard to be quite so shocked by the gore when you’re familiar with Cronenberg’s older films (Videodrome is a personal favourite), probably because we’ve already seen him employ the same prosthetic tricks for different reasons.
Mortensen is great in the lead role, which is good because I’ve been disappointed with every character he has played that wasn’t Aragorn. Maria Bello (Assault on Precinct 13) is similarly impressive, but it’s William Hurt (The Village) who stands out the most. To be honest it’s probably because he’s been cast against type, but his transformation here is astounding. Ed Harris certainly relishes his role, and the rest of the film is filled with caricatures that perfectly pay tribute to its graphic novel roots.
Cronenberg fans won’t be disappointed, and I’m certain that A History of Violence will leave a strong impression on everyone else. It just didn’t impress me the way I had hoped.Rating: