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May 12, 2006 |

By Daniel Carlson | Film | May 12, 2006 |

No one wants to reach for the treetops anymore, the dangerous high places that let us look out at the world and back down at our lives. Some of the audience members with whom I watched A History of Violence, David Cronenberg’s masterful new film, just didn’t get it. You could tell from the way they laughed at the wrong places, driven to chuckle out of confusion, or the way they clapped — actually cheered — when a “good guy” landed a solid hit on a “bad guy.” It was sad, of course, and more than a little annoying, but ultimately it was just frightening; they were living mirrors of the fractured national psyche Cronenberg was examining onscreen before their very own unimpressed eyes, and they couldn’t make the connection.

Adapted from the graphic novel written by John Wagner and illustrated by Vince Locke, A History of Violence is the story of Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), a quiet, gentle diner owner in the small town of Millbrook, Indiana. Tom has two kids, high-schooler Jack (Ashton Holmes) and grammar-school-aged Sarah (Heidi Hayes), and a loving wife, Edie (Maria Bello). Everyone knows Tom and he knows everyone, and the pleasant interactions in his diner feel like a Rockwell scene without the false patriotism: Everyone here seems pretty OK.

But a random act of violence sets into motion an unrelenting chain of events. Two small-time hoods, passing through town on a robbery-and-killing spree, stop into Tom’s diner one night as he’s closing. They lock the door and are about to begin killing the handful of customers when Tom reacts: In moments, he’s taken one of their guns and killed them both, receiving minor injuries in the process. Tom is quickly elevated to hero status, and is greeted upon his exit from the local hospital by a group of appreciative townsfolk and representatives from local media, who’ve begun to plaster his face all over newspapers and the airwaves. This, roughly, is where the wheels start to come off the wagon, as the lives of Tom and his family are upended by a notoriety that sends reminders of Tom’s past back to haunt him. He’s got business unfinished from times before, and his “heroics” ensure that no good deed goes unpunished.

Tom’s self-defense killings raise hard questions for his family, particularly his son, Jack: Formerly content to respond to the bullying jocks of his high school with wit and deference, Jack now reasons that fighting back is an option. “We don’t solve problems in this family by hitting people,” Tom tells Jack. Jack fires back, “No, we shoot them,” the kind of arrogant line only a 16-year-old could spit out. An unfair accusation, sure, but that doesn’t solve Jack’s problem, or Cronenberg’s: Is violence ever acceptable? What does our answer say about us? Are we being hypocritical about the situation?

Cronenberg’s answer to the last question seems to be a weary affirmative. Both Tom and Edie wear silver crosses on chains, a small reminder that we’ve become a nation of superficial religion, wearing pleasant Midwestern masks so we don’t have to deal with the fact that not only would we kill given the right circumstance, but that we might not be able to stop. We might come to, if not enjoy it, at least assimilate it into our routines. What are we willing to do for ourselves? How far are we willing to go?

The film’s punch comes from its complete plausibility, one of the things that Wagner said has inspired his stories from the beginning. There are no superheroes here, only the modern American “hero,” in all his pathetic glory. Similarly, there are no easy answers here, only complicated truths. The Stalls are falling apart, and they’re willing to lie to keep it together; there’s nothing more American than that. The family’s name was McKenna in the graphic novel, but Stall fits them better: stuck in between an unavoidable past and an unwelcoming future, between the way things used to be and the way they never will be again.

Mortensen gives what could be considered the performance of his career. After languishing in supporting roles in disposable films like G.I. Jane and A Perfect Murder, and after spending the last several years being associated with the ham-handed melodrama of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptation, Mortensen breaks free with a subtle, truthful depiction of modern man dealing with 21st-century demons. Bello, likewise, turns in a solid performance. More roles like this one should help her shake her less than illustrious Coyote Ugly past.

Nominated for the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes International Film Festival, A History of Violence is the most accessible film Cronenberg has yet made, and by far his most accomplished work. His gross-out psychological chillers like The Fly still stand out in their field, but here Cronenberg surpasses himself with a gripping story about “ordinary people caught up in extraordinary situations,” as Wagner described his story. It’s a challenging drama, and one worth seeing. That’s what I’m here to do: I implore you to see this movie, and to watch with an open mind. If you find yourself among the people with the mindset to cheer on violence, ask yourself why. It’s not an easy answer but, then again, easy answers never took anyone to the treetops.

Daniel Carlson is the L.A. critic for Pajiba and a copy editor for a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his weblog, Slowly Going Bald.

A History of Violence / Daniel Carlson

Film | May 12, 2006 |

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