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History of Violence, A

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 12/03/05 02:04:39

"Nails everything."
5 stars (Awesome)

There's an temptation, when discussing movies like "Ghost World", "The Road to Perdition", and now "A History of Violence", to deliberately omit references to their "graphic fiction" roots (to use the newest term employed by people who don't want to use the phrase "comic book"). If you like the movie, you don't want to turn people off by having them immediately compare it to "Batman & Robin", or even the good examples of the spandex genre. Even if you like comics as a medium, and regularly gobble up as much autobiography and crime as brightly-colored action/adventure, you might just shrug and think, hell, I don't want to fight this battle again. And maybe you shouldn't; looking at the finished product, "A History of Violence" is an excellent movie regardless of the quality or form of its source material.

But, on closer examination, several of the qualities that make it unique appear to come directly from the graphic medium. Take the strikingly individual character designs, like Ed Harris's ruined eye or the pair of thugs whose hotel robbery opens the movie. Consider the graphic violence, a bit less stylized than what you'd find in Sin City, but still willing to linger on the blood & guts because it makes a striking visual. Notice how some sequences play out without words, while the dialogue is quick and punchy, like it has to share a three-square-inch panel with the action. None of these techniques are unique to comics, of course, but the look and feel does set it apart from other films.

After a quick credits sequence where a pair of killers rob the motel they stayed in - and we get the impression that these aren't the first bodies they've left behind - we meet Tom Stall, a happily married father of two who, though he didn't grow up in the small town where his diner is located, seems pretty universally respected and liked. He's got a beautiful wife (Maira Bello), an adorable daughter (Heidi Hayes), and a son who's no more trouble than any teenager (Ashton Holmes). His quiet life is shattered when two familiar faces come to the diner at closing time - and he does not go down easily like their previous targets. The media attention brings gangster Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) to town with claims that Stall isn't who he says he is at all.

That's when the filmmakers really starts to go to work. They've thrown a handful of shocking images at the audience by this point, but once Fogarty enters the scene, it's time to start stripping layers away from Stall, revealing a disturbing hidden identity. We see Stall try to rebuild his cocoon, but trouble keeps coming, and the beast has to keep coming out, and soon he's alienating everyone around him. Director David Cronenberg is relentless here, keeping the violence ugly but not throwing so much at the audience as to create numbness. The spots between the action don't really let up, either, as we watch the tension leave cracks in Stall's fašade, and the tension spreads to his family like some kind of disease.

All sorts of credit to Viggo Mortensen here; he makes Tom a man of few words, but the lines on his face are such that he doesn't have to speak to get his point across. His body language is also exceptional; when the violence breaks out, he moves smoothly and efficiently, and as the film goes on, his stance changes from lanky comfort to tension to a frightening cockiness. Maria Bello is as dependable as always as Edie Stall, making it clear she's able to handle most situations but that this horror may be a little much. The gangsters are the ones who really get to take the script into their teeth, with Ed Harris's Fogarty projecting pure menace with only the thinnest veneer of politeness while William Hurt's Richie Cusack has clearly moved up in the world without forgetting his roots.

There are a lot of individual elements in A History of Violence that may be faults in other movies, but all seem to pull together here. Josh Olson's screenplay makes a couple jumps that seem pretty big; would Stall's actions make the national news and attract Fogarty's attention? Is the last act a little too glib and self-consciously witty, after all the efforts to make the first hour fairly grounded? Is the little girl just a little too cute? Individually, these may be issues, but here they pull together. History probably won't be considered come the awards season - it's the spiritual descendant of the B crime movies of the forties and has no pretense of being more - but it's great, visceral filmmaking, hard-boiled without feeling exploitive.

The only way to make it a better example of its genre, I figure, would be to resurrect Edward G. Robinson and give him a part. Until such time as that's possible, though this is about as good as it gets.

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