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A History of Violence
Reviewed by Carla Freccero
Review Date: 10.12.05

David Cronenberg’s latest, A History of Violence, doesn’t disappoint, though it’s not his more usual sci fi horror fare or even the delving into the strange depths of disturbed psyches. Instead, it’s based on a graphic novel—perfect, in a way, for the flat two-dimensionality and garish color of the camerawork in some of his films and for the caricature-like acting he often demands from his cast. Here it’s heart throb Viggo Mortensen as Tom Stall, Maria Bello as his wife Edie, and Ed Harris and William Hurt in other brilliantly cartoonish and menacing roles.

The four-minute opening shot is not to be missed, by the director’s own admission, since, as he notes, it was done as one continuous take and, like a signature, provides the crucial mood, tone, and commentary on the title and the movie as a whole.

This is a violent story that becomes a history of violence by virtue of its setting in the heart of the nuclear family at the heart of small-town middle America, and its protagonists: the benign pater familias and his little brood, including, importantly, a son who, in the course of the story, learns about and assumes the mantle of his father’s legacy to become a man in his own right (man here is used deliberately and understood to be in quotation marks). What would otherwise seem to be yet another story of salt-of-the-earth or frontiersman heroism signals itself as, instead, critique, precisely through the way the title guides us toward the understanding that the genesis narrative we’re witnessing is not that of a hero, but the genealogy of violence itself.

There’s almost nothing to say about the plot that doesn’t give too much away, and some of what’s delightfully different in this Cronenberg is its reliance on the surprises of plot, the twists, not in perspective, which he does much of the time, but in the story, which then force the audience in turn to revise its perspective on the characters.

What may perhaps astonish the viewer is that A History of Violence is, at times, quite funny. I kept thinking, oh, this is so Canadian, the way people in this movie are supposed to be before we find out who they actually are, and that’s part of the humor. Another part is just how clichéd some of the moves and dialogue are, clichéd but at the same time wrenched out of their naturalizing contexts so that you get the wittily delivered point. This is the stuff of American family saga or epic, the western or The Godfather, reduced to quirkiness and a quiet sense of irony.

Cronenberg often holds up a mirror to our culture, and A History of Violence is no exception. It’s not like there’s a way out, either. This mirror reflects back a distortion, but perhaps a true one: almost Biblical, or classicizing Greek in its emplotment, it suggests that the sins of the father are visited upon the son, and that the violence of the past will come home to roost. And yet, there doesn’t seem to be a state of grace in which we might live free of that violence. Or at least the America that’s just south of the Canadian border is definitely not that state.

Looking for trouble at the movies, for KUSP and the film gang, this is Carla Freccero.