I love a high concept. God, I do — and if you happen to mix it with a study of violence, and have it directed by the master of violence, it’s a beautiful thing. Even though that guy’s cheek is busted open puckering against the floor…
Viggo Mortensen plays Tom Stall, a good ol’ boy who runs a small town diner. One night, a pair of rather frank killers intrudes, and while we were following them for a while, we veer away from Tarantino territory when they’re quickly dispatched by Tom. Why is it, the town slowly begins to ask, that he’s so good at killing? To help them with the asking, Ed Harris is here, sunglassed and angry.
Carl Fogarty here is convinced that Tom is not who he says he is, that he’s actually a gangster from Philadelphia named Joey. And from there, we go, and tell a complete story that rounds out in the end and asks questions about the nature and culture of violence in America.
It’s a real visceral one. But like (in my opinion) the better entries in Cronenberg’s canon, it’s got a sensitivity to humanity such that Tom provides genuine pathos despite his character’s true nature as fundamentally hidden. Maria Bello and William Hurt round out another film that’s well casted by the C-Man. And while this is definitely Tom’s story, they make the most of their support roles.
Leave it to an adaptation, I suppose, to get supporting characters right. Much as I might malign the institution that is adaptations in film, it’s only logical that if the institution leaves screenwriting stripped of a soul, we’ll only find humanity in other media.
Speaking of humanity, for a film with its title, the violence on display here is a showcase, and largely unique. People aren’t just killed, they’re disfigured by violence, and nary a one kill looks like the typical Hollywood whatever. For an interrogation of our relationship to violence, this ingredient is necessary, though it might not seem so in the moment.
This is the penultimate Cronenberg film on the list. The next, we won’t see for a while. For now, A History of Violence is a great story with full characters, heightened situations, and brutality like no other.