A History of Violence

USA, 2005, David Cronenberg, 96 min.

Please Note: There are some spoilers in this review. 

Mild-mannered man Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) becomes a local hero through an act of violence, which brings to light aspects of his past that will shake his family to its very core.

That is the easy way to describe this movie. It only scratches the surface. Cronenberg takes 96 minutes, and in that time creates a movie that is profound in ways most directors can’t accomplish in three hours. The psychological layers of this short movie are incredibly deep, but the story is so simple. It’s about a man. A man who struggles to rectify what he was and what he has become. A man who has to come to a decision whether or not to regress in order to move forward, all the while not slipping back into a life he fought so hard to get away from, because secretly, he may still find pleasure in it. It’s about the duality of Tom, but also human nature, a theme reflected time and time again in just about every character in the movie.

The Cinesthete thinks that the duality of Tom is really shown through the two sex scenes of the film, which clearly show Tom’s relationship with the people around him at that present moment. One is full of tenderness and innocence while the other feels like it’s bordering on rape. That’s where you see the difference between the Tom that IS, family man, husband, all around nice guy, and the Tom that WAS and is threatening to be again, violent, scary, dangerous. While I agree that those scenes indeed show Tom’s change, I think there is one scene where you see both simultaneously, the turning point of the movie. There is a scene in the movie where Tom confronts Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) and his goons in Tom’s front yard. Carl is convinced Tom is the gangster Joey Cusack and is trying to get him to come back to Philly with him. What happens next is a literal change in Tom’s face and body language that sent a shiver through my spine. In those seconds Tom goes from round faced, sweet, Indiana family man to hardened, hallow checked, dead eyed killer. Seconds. I counted. That, dear reader, is the moment where you see the Tom that IS vs. the Tom that WAS.

This theme of duality weaves itself through the rest of the movie, and through the viewer as well. I went through countless moments where I was rooting for Tom, then I was afraid of Tom, then I felt like I understood Tom’s dilemma, and then I was scared of Tom again. It was a roller coaster of emotion that by the end of the movie, which ends with Tom’s family around the dinner table, though far more ambiguous and forever changed, I had spent half my time on the edge of my seat and half my time covering my eyes. All of this in 96 minutes.

I have always appreciated Cronenberg, though not always liked him as a director. I have since learned that perhaps I’ve not seen enough of his movies, only the more mainstream ones and ones that were available on TV when I was a kid. My love of his directing style has grown since adding more of his movies to my viewing log, and I no longer say “Yeah he’s a good director BUT..”  when talking about him in conversation. The acting in this movie is great, with every actor, from main to secondary, putting on a great performance. These two components, along with a good script, creates one of those movies that I long for as a film fan. I highly recommend this movie. 

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