As with all of David Cronenberg’s pictures, nothing is as it seems in A History of Violence. The 2005 outing is based on a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke, with a screenplay by Josh Olson. The usual suspects are present, including cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, editor Ronald Sanders, production designer Carol Spier, composer Howard Shores, and costume designer Denise Cronenberg.
It also couples Cronenberg with Viggo Mortensen, who immediately seems a new muse. Including A History of Violence, the director and actor have paired together three times to date. There is something primal about their connection, something awe-inspiring in how quickly Mortenson takes to Cronenberg’s tales of self-delusion.
Mortensen is Tom Stall, a diner owner in small town Indiana. He lives with his wife Edie (Maria Bello), son Jack (Ashton Holmes) and daughter Sarah (Heidi Hayes). One night, Tom stops a violent robbery at his diner. He becomes a local celebrity, which draws the attention of some sinister characters.
Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) is one such character. He arrives from Philly and swears up and down that Tom is actually someone named Joey Cusack. Tom doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but Carl and his cronies threaten his family. One thing leads to another and the violence escalates. And so on.
On the surface, it seems Cronenberg is treating violence as a virus. It duplicates and explodes, moving through history from father to son and so on. This is an elementary but necessary point, but it takes a unique shift when Cronenberg suggests that the violence is not only practical but entertaining.
It is also evolutionary. The “survival of the fittest” is a vicious and organic process. What persists has little to do with what is moral or good and everything to do with what is strong, what can effectively preserve itself through the passage of time.
There are variants to this Darwinism and Cronenberg’s interest is clear, but A History of Violence concerns a number of angles. There is the deliberate suppression of a violent past, for instance. The truth about Tom Stall is concealed under a façade of warmth and he wears it well. He prefers life in Indiana to the alternative and has built an existence that supports it.
But the truth can only strain so much under repression and Tom is who he is. The journey back to something primitive heads to some extraordinary places, both cinematically and morally, and Cronenberg pulls off an interesting trick in that he makes the vicious evolution altogether pleasurable.
The audience therefore considers this organic process as entertainment and the director’s exploration of the human condition seems more accessible than ever, almost to the point of becoming pop cinema. That’s the point. The lure of violence, the way it insidiously grafts itself on everything from high school drama to sex, is part of its past.
There are many wonders hiding in plain sight, like a remarkable performance by William Hurt. Mortensen is sublime, capturing a man torn between two natures but materially salvaged by only one. That revelation imposes itself on his son, a heritage of force as essential as it is unwelcome.
And so, violence persists. It persists because it is a force of nature, because it is a language spoken by people in power and people who survive. Cronenberg’s offering demarcates the progression in the confident terms of an audacious auteur and the audience is allowed in for a change, whether they like it or not.