Directed by David Cronenberg
Most movies have three acts in which the status quo changes slightly (or dramatically) so that the characters have to react accordingly. In A History of Violence, each of those acts might as well be its own movie. They each feel so incredibly unique both in terms of the story but also the tone and atmosphere and even the balance between humor and drama.
In the first act we meet Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) and his beautiful family in idyllic, small town America. Everything is so unbelievably perfect, but it’s only presented as such so the take down of this life Tom has created for himself will be that much more disastrous.
The movie actually opens with two men who you might call ex-convicts (surely), criminals, robbers, murderers or psychopaths. They are all of the above, and we meet them in a four or five minute unbroken take that ends with the murder of three innocent people, including a small child. These characters only serve to kick Tom’s story into motion (inciting incident) but starting the movie with them establishes the tone and the criminal underworld early on.
In other words, whatever we see first in a movie helps build up the feeling and atmosphere this movie is meant to give us. By choosing to start with a scene of these two unnamed criminals, we know right from the start that this is a movie of criminal activity (and murder, even though the title probably gave that away). What this means is that when we meet Tom and his perfect family, we’re already clued in to the fact that this is all an act on some level. We know from the start, then, that Tom has constructed this life for himself and for his family (but mainly for himself). Making it immediately clear that this appealingly simple life is a construction helps establish that it can (and will) be taken apart.
The first 10-15 minutes after the opening scene (which might as well be a prologue), we meet Tom, his family, his diner, his town, his neighbors, the friendly police chief, and we learn a little bit about the son, Jack’s (Ashton Holmes) personal struggles with a school bully. Then the two criminals from the first scene show up, intent on robbing Tom’s diner. When they become unabashedly evil (insisting on hurting the friendly waitress just to make a point which doesn’t seem necessary to make), Tom leaps into action. He pummels one of them across the head with a coffee pot, then shoots the other before shooting the first one. Boom. In the span of a few seconds the two bad guys are dead and gruesomely so.
Tom is hailed as a hero, and his face is plastered everywhere in the news. This attracts the attention of a one-eyed man named Carl (Ed Harris), a member of a family of organized crime. He haunts Tom, insisting that his name is really Joey and that he’s the one who maimed Carl’s eye. Now, we know from the opening scene as well as the title of this film, that Carl is probably correct, no matter how much Tom denies that he is this mysteriously violent Joey figure.
What this movie handles well is not dragging out the reveal and inevitable confrontation between Tom/Joey and Carl. At first Tom so stubbornly insists he’s not Joey that I began to believe him, but he always had to be Joey. That’s the story, anyways.
So there is some drama between him and his wife and son as they become increasingly confident that he really is Joey. This is also where the film suffered a little, combining striking violence with forced melodrama. Tom’s wife, Edie (Maria Bello) becomes more enraged that Tom is lying to her, and I found that a little hard to believe. If anything, you’d think the shock of Tom killing two men would hold over long enough for her not to be sure how to process all of this.
Of course, I should say that Edie’s suspicions don’t boil over until Carl and his men return, having briefly kidnapped Jack so they can force Tom to surrender himself to them. There is a quick altercation (and probably the finest moment of the film) in which Tom kills Carl’s two men before finding himself looking down the barrel of Carl’s gun. Tom finally confesses to being Joey, though it’s more of a moment of pride, in which he says he’s glad he maimed Carl. Carl smiles and prepares to shoot Tom when Jack kills him with a shotgun.
The last act of the film deals with Tom trying to win his family back. He insists that he’s not the same man who killed all those men in the past. As Joey, he was a hired murderer it seems, but he repeatedly says “Joey is dead,” before we see several instances that suggest that no, Joey is very much alive.
In act one, Tom and Edie make love in a very… mutually beneficial way. They role play as teenagers, and the whole scene is meant to show both how affectionate and innocent their love still is. This is a set up for the scene in the third act in which they make violent, passionate, painful love on the stairs. It starts with a fight, then progresses to this animalistic battle before Edie gets up and leaves him alone. All of this is meant to show that the Tom construction has been dismantled, and now he is most definitely Joey, the man he claims died years ago.
Later Joey’s brother calls him up, wanting to reunite. His brother, Richie (William Hurt), explains to Joey how he caused him so many problems through his wildly violent behavior and through hurting Carl, he of another crime family. Richie, despite his intended expression of brotherhood, comes across as an ominous figure (though maybe that’s just his beard), and he orders his men to kill his brother. At this point I was sure that Joey would be killed, first because he was outnumbered, and even though I knew he’s basically a superhero, I figured he had to die. It felt right for the story. The appearance of Carl and his men demonstrated how alive Joey is, and when he left to visit his brother, Tom’s family was deathly afraid of him. There seemed to be no going back. Tom, then, might as well have been dead because not only does his family see him in a whole new light, but he himself seems unable to restrain that violent part of him which he had worked so hard to suppress.
So it only follows that Joey, back alive, would have to die all over again because even if Joey won this fight, where would he go? There’s no world for him out there. The movie ending with Joey/Tom’s death felt appropriately tragic (after all the film was getting increasingly dark) and poetic.
Instead Joey wins. He kills his brother’s men before killing his brother as well. A History of Violence ends with Tom/Joey returning home to his family as they eat dinner. Everyone remains silent and either wide-eyed or teary-eyed as Tom sits down at the table, waiting for them to demand he leave… but they don’t. His kids set a plate out for him, and Tom looks on with fear and a sort of rabid anxiety before the film cuts to black.
So Viggo Mortensen plays Tom in act 1, but then in act 2 he plays a different version of Tom, one who can feel his life, which he worked so hard for, slipping painfully away. And then in act 3, Viggo plays a completely new character, Joey. The style of the film reflects these changes too. Maybe I’m just imaging it, but the third act of the film felt like it was shot with much stronger shadows, indicating a more noir-ish tone than the serenity expressed in the first act.
The violence of this film is very well done. It’s both shocking and gory in a way you expect real violence might be. It also feels right for the film, because these deaths are meant to really shake up the status quo. If this were a movie about young Joey, roaming the streets of Philadelphia with his gun and barbed wire, then these deaths might not be depicted with such intensity because murder was a part of who he was. Now, however, he has built this life that is completely the opposite of the one he’s running away from. When someone dies in this quaint American town, it’s appropriately shocking.
To add to that, much of the film is incredibly tense. Cronenberg filmed most of the conversational shots so that each person had their own frame, unobstructed by the other person. The result is something like this…
versus something like this, from (500) Days of Summer…
In Summer, we look over Summer’s shoulder, placing both characters in the same space. It’s not a complicated shot, in fact many shows/movies follow a similar template, designed to make it clear who/what the character is looking at, but in A History of Violence, the style of shooting makes it so that we can never see what the character is looking at until we’re given a new shot, meaning we have to wait. Because there is so much violence we expect that something will happen, and since we’re not able to see what the character sees, we’re waiting for the violence to happen. It’s like staring at the surface of the water, knowing a shark might pop out at any moment.
The whole film is shot like this, from what I recall. Even in early scenes Cronenberg uses this shot dynamic. Once we establish the mysterious threat of Carl’s black car, haunting Tom’s house and diner, I began to expect that they might attack suddenly at any moment. Even in the most mundane of moments (not that there are many), I felt the tension. In shots like the one of Viggo Mortensen above, there are two effects: first, like I described, we can’t see what he sees, meaning we have to very carefully read his expression to know what’s happening across from him, but second, we have a clearer view of what’s behind him while he doesn’t. We’re trained, like Cronenberg is telling us, to study the environment behind the character, as if something might attack out of the blue. It’s like being in a post-apocalyptic wasteland with your friend, where vengeful cannibals could be anywhere. You and your friend position each other so that you watch behind his back and he behind yours.
Cronenberg, in this set up, teaches you to be on guard, and because of that many scenes which ultimately are pretty quiet, feel incredibly tense.