History of Violence, A

Reviewed By Abhishek Bandekar
Posted 03/21/06 02:27:06

"Nothing Educational About It!"
3 stars (Average)

'A History Of Violence' is more than what it seems…or at least it’d like to be. Coming at a time when the general perception of America as an international bully is being written on wet cement, the movie purports to ask and enquire a troublesome facet of humanity- one that it isn’t proud of yet exhibits it ever so often. Sadly, the movie treads this interesting path in a very hackneyed way.

Mankind, as history will inform you, has been anything but kind. And despite all our steps towards a civilized global neighbourhood, violence establishes its hegemony in various forms. One’s begged to wonder- is violence and the need to be destructive a part of our evolution…a gene that we carry in our cells? Tom Stall(Viggo Mortensen, commendable) is a family man, married with two kids, running a diner in Millbrook, Indiana. The family, suburb and its characters belong to the world of Frank Capra. That they feature in a David Cronenberg(The Fly, Dead Ringers, eXistenZ) film is both unsettling and foreboding unexpectedness. The assumption is vindicated when two cold-blooded goons, whom we meet in an extended opening sequence that appears to have nothing to do with the movie but everything with its following tone, attempt to plunder Tom’s diner; and Tom reacts instinctively and defends himself, his staff and his diner with precise action moves, otherwise incapable of a Frank Capra character! Tom’s suddenly in the limelight, and his newfound fame brings into this quaint town a fearsome mob-boss Carl Fogarty(Ed Harris). Fogarty believes that Tom Stall is Joey Cusack rechristened; Joey Cusack- a hardcore criminal from Philly with a bloody violent streak. Fogarty, intent on settling a past grudge that’s resulted in the loss of Fogarty’s left eye, pursues Tom who rejects and evades until even his wife Edie(Maria Bello, luminous) starts suspecting him. But when Fogarty drags Stall’s family into the equation, Tom lets his garb down and allows the violent Joey to take over.

Cronenberg, as is typical of his style, shoots his action in the most gruesome manner possible. Here however, Cronenberg is more interested in the aftermath of the violence and doesn’t linger on the action but hangs around uncomfortably on the moments affected by it. Upon realizing his dad’s superhero-like triumph over the city-goons, Tom’s son Jack(Ashton Holmes, ideal), much inclined to avoid physical confrontation, beats up his college bully to a bloody pulp. Edie too, hurt by her husband’s deliberate hiding of his criminal past finds herself drawn and repulsed at the same time to Tom’s vicious alter-ego Joey. In an intense sexual scene, Tom and Edie indulge in a violent act of sexual intercourse, leaving one unsure whether a married couple has had rough passionate sex or two individuals have released their repressed emotions in a violent fit of sex! The power virtually shifts from Tom to Edie in this brilliant scene, by the end of which Edie has humiliated Tom by sleeping with Joey!

Beneath all, the screenplay(Josh Olson), based on the graphic novel(a sophisticated term for comic book) by John Wagner and Vince Locke, tries to understand the connection that the human race shares with violence. Is Darwin’s theory of the survival of the fittest merely a subtler scientific exposition of a street fight? Olson would like to dissect the argument but fails to scratch the surface of it, let alone further. Understanding the cycle of violence and pain is something that Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River(2003) achieved successfully.

Tom Stall’s kids are the staple Hollywood cardboard cut-outs, especially the daughter(Heidi Hayes) who is irritatingly sweet and banal as well- mouthing the typical “scared of monsters, momma I want shoes” dialogues! The script is predictable to the boot, save Ed Harris’s face-off with Tom in front of the Stall house. And just when things couldn’t get more humdrum, a new character is brought in to inject some activity. William Hurt’s introduction as Joey’s elder brother Richie Cusack, a criminal lord of Philadelphia, adds little to the script than allowing Hurt an opportunity to revel in a showy role. Hurt has fun, but is his performance Oscar-worthy? Ed Harris’s silent menacing act is more deserving.

As the movie progresses one cannot help but feel like watching a Bollywood movie, albeit one with better standards of filmmaking. And it resembles one Bollywood movie in particular- 'Hum'(1991), directed by the late Mukul Anand, starring Amitabh Bachchan as a perfect family man whose violent past collides with his reformed sober present. 'Hum' never attempted at being more than a commercial entertainer but 'A History Of Violence' definitely wants to make a macro statement, one which it fails at. Give me 'Hum' any day. You may as well throw tomatoes at me for saying that.

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