The title of David Cronenberg‘s A History of Violence is fitting, for its hackneyed premise—that there may be a latent lust for violence in even the most innocuous-appearing person—calls to mind the narrator’s dronings from the America’s Serial Killers documentary I watched a while back. Like so many films that are calculated to shock, its presentation is surprisingly safe. Skinning the film’s chest of its blood-caked epithelial layer reveals the heart of a story beating as routinely as the ticking of a time bomb of which the viewer is the only real victim.
The narrative is sensationalized as an incongruous melange of freaky, almost sci-fi-style, kung-fu violence and a hammy, mob-movie spoof. The central character, Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), is not who his family thinks he is. The first evidence of his alterego comes when this seemingly mild-mannered blue-collar guy blows away two goons who hold up the diner he owns. And does it with the dexterity of one of the agents from The Matrix. At first, this case of mistaken identity appears headed in the futuristic direction of Total Recall, involving an innocent guy who’s had his memory erased as part of a grand scheme. But when the media attention stoked by Stall’s heroism attracts Irish mafioso Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) to pay a visit, we know something’s rotten in the town of Millbrook. Turns out Tom Stall’s really Joey Cusack from Philadephia, a gangster with near-superman melee powers who at some point inflicted one hell of a crater of a scar beneath Fogarty’s left eye.
As part of this threadbare gangster tale, Cronenberg treats us to fight scenes that are so comically exaggerated, they make Bruce Lee’s choreography look realistic. The cherry on top of this sundae for fans of Rambo-style beat-’em-ups will surely be the final act, in which Tom’s brother Richie calls him back to Philly to settle a vendetta. Anyone who’s kept a straight face until this point has done pretty well, but it will be hard not to erupt in laughter when the unbelievably inept Richie tries to dispose of his bro by siccing his goofy underlings on him, much as Moe might direct Larry and Curly to throw a pie at an adversary or Daffy Duck might try to drop an anvil on Porky’s head. The Three Stooges would be proud to have thought of Joey’s door-closing trick as a way to fool knuckleheads, even if they might stop short of slaughtering them.
Along with this slapstick routine, Cronenberg’s pseudo-shocking imagery hits us between the eyes and strokes us between the thighs, as his overwrought screenplay depicts a day in the life of violence—and its companion in cheap thrills, sex—in the American family.
At school, it’s like father, like son for Jack Stall (Ashton Holmes), who, in a sequence worthy of a bad 80s teen movie, finally tires of locker-room bullying and slams his taunter, Bobby Singer (Kyle Schmid) repeatedly into a locker while screaming obscenities. His father tries to lecture him on why we can’t solve our problems this way, but it’s hard to take this advice from a father who’s cracked more than a few skulls himself. Too bad you’re such a wimp, Bobby. You might look like a pimply-faced antagonist held over from Back to the Future, but I couldn’t agree more that this pseudo-sensitive twerp was cruisin’ for a bruisin’.
At home, wife Edie Stall (Maria Bello) is horrified at the discovery of her husband’s past life. So horrified that, tired of kicking at his face while they claw their way up the stairs, she lets him plow her womanly folds with his raging spear. Makes us wonder whether she’s trying to escape from a dangerous pursuer or indulging in the rape fantasy she read about in the letters section of Penthouse. Of course, the pandering Cronenberg doubtless wants it that way. Yes, Mr. Cronenberg. Violence sells. Sex sells. And as you glibly said in an interview, the two go together like “eggs and bacon.” Some films let you bathe in a river of blood. Some films make your member stand up and salute. By golly, this film does both!
This is novelty only for those who let the visceral desires of the moment cloud their judgment. In addition to a mediocre pulp story, lackluster acting—especially Viggo Mortensen’s lethargic performance in the lead role—predictable sequencing and lines, and rambling messaging, gore and sleaze is about all this film has to offer. If I want that, I can tune in to the 6:00 news.
Joe’s Grade: C