If you look at our Greek literature, stories from thousands of years ago, violence is not only seen as a part of life, it is celebrated. Men who were skilled in violence were celebrated as heroes. In Homeric battles violent ability was coveted and rewarded. Violence was good.
Today we live in a different world. Violence is universally regarded as both damaging to society and a character flaw in those who practice it. Yet still it is all around us. People still fight wars and each other in the street. It is possible that violence is a part of human nature that we can never escape, it is always with us, no matter how hard we try to ignore or banish it… or maybe we can. This is the question David Cronenberg asks in his new film A History of Violence.
Viggo Mortensen plays Tom Stall, the archetypal small town businessman in Millbrook Indiana – America’s heartland; a town and a man seemingly mired in cliché. He picks up litter, greets everyone by name as he walks to work past a hundred white picket fences. He eats apple pie and tells his friends he’ll see them in church. Tom runs a diner and lives a quiet life with his wife Edie and son Jack, until one night, two armed murderers on the run come in to his diner just as he is closing and hold him up. One puts a gun to his elderly waitress’s head and the other points a pistol at Tom and tells him to hand over all his money. Within a few seconds both men are dead and Tom and his friends are still alive. He instantly becomes a celebrity, and a hero, until people start asking, “How did he do that?”
A History of Violence is based on a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke and although it is vastly different from other comic book adaptations, the style and techniques that Cronenberg invokes are very much of the genre. The characters, the settings, the dialogue, are all slightly exaggerated. Only slightly, but enough to take the story a half step away from reality. Millbrook is a long way from Sin City but was built on similar foundations.
And what a place for a man like Tom Stall to live. The film revolves completely around its central character and despite its title and Cronenberg’s reputation, the film is outwardly a look at the struggle for personal identity. This actually involves some pretty deep thinking about who we are and the nature of self-hood; themes that go way beyond simple debates around nature vs. nurture. Although Tom is the main protagonist, his wife and son struggle with their own identity issues throughout the film too, just not to the same extent. The nervousness and desperation on his son Jack’s face as he considers whether to unleash his anger on the school bully is both familiar and an example of what the film is all about; the choices we make everyday that determine who we are.
But A History of Violence would fail completely if Viggo Mortensesn was unconvincing in the role of Tom Stall. Thankfully, he pulls it off. In fact, he is so convincing, and his performance so emotive that he is able to bring a subtlety to the role that is the making of the film. The sort of transformation as an actor that Mortensen is capable of, seen even within this film, is the mark of a really great actor, the same ability that Anthony Hopkins and Edward Norton are capable of.
A History of Violence takes one man’s struggle for identity and exaggerates it in to a fantastical story, but at the same time, the fundamental ideas about humanity and identity at its heart remain relevant to everyone. Beyond this, Cronenberg asks some pretty serious questions about America and the world’s obsession with violence and society’s hypocrisy towards it (killing two people makes Tom Stall a hero, just as it was thousands of years ago). But it is the deeper questions that you will still be thinking about long after you have left the cinema. The film offers no answers, but it asks the questions so very well.