[Originally posted 10/15/05]
A History of Violence -- a great title, isnt it? -- is as compact and precise as films get. Its like an object whose imperfections, if there are any, are hard to find with a naked eye. Its also at once both classically conventional and chillingly radical. While, unlike other David Cronenberg films, it doesn't feature subversive images of teleported hybrids (The Fly ), copulating amphibians (Naked Lunch ), or wounds being invaded by cocks (Crash ), it allows us to witness something scarier: a man being turned inside out... in front of our very eyes.
Thematically, there are similarities between History and Clint Eastwoods Mystic River (2003). And while the latter is vast, sprawling and, yes, imperfect, it has moments where it goes even deeper than Cronenbergs film, which is superior as a whole. The problems with Mystic lie with its "movie" part: the police procedural, extraneous characters, unsubtle sequences, etc. which is something Historys lean screenplay, derived from a graphic-novel, avoids. There isn't a wasted moment here. Unlike the morose Mystic, Cronenbergs film is at once both a mainstream thriller and an art film.
Violence doesnt arrive in Millbrook, Indiana, Cronenbergs archetypal American town in the film, in the shape of mobsters-in-black; it was already there. Early on, we witness the son of everyman Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) playing baseball during gym class. After the high schools bully gets caught, he glowers at him, insinuating revenge, then later confronts him in the locker room. This is the sort of "violence" Cronenberg establishes from the beginning. He also grounds the film by showcasing an average family: Stall, who runs a diner is married to Edie (Maria Bello), a lawyer, with whom he also shares a daughter. Initially, Cronenberg slyly allows the "Queen" of the house in this small town to be in charge: her occupation vs. Stall's; him asking her for a ride to work; the woman even gets to initiate and organize their @#%$-session.
Then tragedy strikes, and ultimately Stalls past comes into question. It becomes a possibility that he may have lived another life in Philadelphia, as someone else. His family life starts to deteriorate. How does he confront these issues? By resorting to what he knows best, which is violence. He marks and claims his territory via a violent confrontation with Edie after she becomes aware of his "new" identity and starts to resent him. This is where Cronenberg peels yet another surface: Violence existed within this man all along, and it exists within all of us in different shapes and forms.
That isnt a profound insight, but its not Cronenbergs fault that American cinema has rarely dealt with the subject matter. Eastwood, perhaps not surprisingly, has, and he came up with something spectacular and, to some, scary with Mystic River. And his harrowing display also started early on. Three kids playing hockey in the street are approached by a couple of ill-meaning men in a car. While one of the kids named Dave might be physically bigger than the other two, he seems more fragile, both emotionally and psychologically, and thus is an easier target. Another kid named Jimmy seems cocky, as one guy even says, "So, youre the tough guy, huh?" Dave eventually gets picked up due to his demeanor and because he lived the farthest away from where they were, but thats also where Eastwood wanted to establish Jimmys "alpha-maleness" at a early age by having Dave in his territory, rather than the other way around.
And Eastwood never betrayed his aggressor, later on played by Sean Penn. Jimmys behavioral patterns could be attributed to genetics, friends, society, etc. There are no exact answers, and Eastwood is wise enough to know that. Cronenberg never quite goes there, although his dilemma might be that his protagonist is both the abuser and the victim. But both men would agree that human behavior cannot truly be explained, by any science. So, its quite an accomplishment by both of them to boldly travel a terrain which not many have tread. And along the way, they allow strong woman to be an important part of the lives of their men. Maria Bello is less accepting of her husband, but unlike Laura Linney (Jimmys wife in Mystic), she didnt lose one of her own. On the other hand, Linney had to reassure her man about the riches of their family; in History, the man already knows: "Yes" is all we hear and all we need to hear when the worthiness of his new life is questioned by his mobster brother (a brilliant William Hurt).
But ultimately both films meet where they end. Eastwoods is a spectacle, Cronenbergs is as quiet as it gets, yet both reaffirm the most important concept there is: Survival of the Fittest.
*A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE premiered at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival (in-competition). Available is the U.S. on DVD (New Line).