September 23, 2005

A History of Violence

Directed by David Cronenberg Starring Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello and Ed Harris

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

The trend of distinguished directors attempting comic adaptations surely must nonplus those militant auteurists without fanboy leanings. Even the most ambitious of these efforts often result in something cartoonish (i.e. The Hulk, Sin City). Road to Perdition certainly offers scant hope that its fellow Paradox Press pulp piece A History of Violence can avoid the same fate. But the shortcomings of John Wagner and Vince Locke’s fairly hackneyed and senselessly gruesome graphic novel have actually triggered David Cronenberg’s chilling and fascinating meditation on the genre’s conventions and – by implication – its audience.

Seemingly loaded with the ammo of a typical Hollywood thriller, the Canadian visionary's first full-fledged studio production in nearly two decades is deceptively generic. After confronting and wasting two thugs (Stephen McHattie, Greg Bryk) at his diner, Tom (Viggo Mortensen) and his all-American family in a sleepy Mellencampian small town inadvertently attract the attention of the national media and menacing gangster Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris). Fogarty takes Tom for his foe Joey, and begins randomly terrorizing the family hoping to settle some old score.

The film explores the fluid correlation between the roles people assume in life and their capacities for aggression. Characters' abilities to engage in horrifically extreme behaviours define them as ordinary/extraordinary, victim/aggressor, or hero/villain. Tom's identity crisis manifests in two polar-opposite sexual episodes with his wife Edie (Maria Bello). Dynamics also shift in the power struggle between Tom's meek son Jack (Ashton Holmes) and school jock/bully Bobby (Kyle Schmid).

A History of Violence does function on the same level as the run-of-the-mill thriller from which it originally sprung, and viewers not actively seeking out nuances will easily mistake it as such. Howard Shore's daytime-TV score masks screenwriter Josh Olson's merciless jabs at nearly every cliché of its genre, effectively steering the film away from overt parody.

Cronenberg begins yanking viewers' chains right from the opening salvo, as the would-be burglars of Tom's diner are about to check out of a motel. When told to bring the car to the office, one of them carries out the order by turning on the ignition and stereo only to nudge the car forward a few inches before shutting it off again. This droll sequence serves as prelude of sorts. The director stages several fiery incidents of belligerence that effectively whet viewers' appetite for gratuitous bloodshed, and then proceeds to anticlimactically dissolve those before they actually come to blows. When brutality does take place, it's often startling and stomach-turning. The method forces acute viewers to analyze their affinity for gore and the cheap thrills they get from such spectacle.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.