To decipher and comprehend the nature of anything in the present, one must have a solid understanding of the past history leading up to the present moment. With A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, Canadian filmmaker, David Cronenberg, explores whether one man can escape a violent past to maintain a simple yet meaningful present, while ultimately avoiding history repeating itself through future family generations.
Viggo Mortensen plays Tom Stall, the owner of a local diner in a small town. His life is simple and fulfilling. He starts each day around the dinner table with his beautiful wife, Edie (Maria Bello), infant daughter (Heidi Hayes) and mild-mannered teenage son, Jack (Ashton Holmes). The Stall family is functional, happy and balanced. It is both comforting and reassuring to see such a pleasant family where everything isn’t perfect but the effort is being made and the commitment is strong. Everyone does their part, from Jack feeding the dog to Tom sitting up with his daughter after a nightmare to Edie dressing up like a cheerleader to roleplay with her husband. This family seems aware of how fortunate they are to have each other and to live in the town of Millbrook, where people stop to say hello on the street as they walk past, where people aren’t faceless.
Cronenberg takes his time with this setup, allowing us to become drawn into this comfortable place. Of course, we have the knowledge that something bad is on its way from before the film started, which builds tension as we wait. It also makes the fall so much further as there is much at stake for the Stall’s. On one insignificant day, Tom fights back with precision and intensity against two men that hold up his diner and threaten his patrons. Tom’s act of extreme bravery garners him national media attention and subsequently leads some gentlemen, of the disturbing and frightening nature, to the town of Millbrook and his diner counter. Led by Carl Fogerty (Ed Harris), these men accuse Tom of being someone he claims not to be, which in turn forces him to face who he used to be, who he has become and how to integrate both of these sides of himself.
Tom’s use of violence is shown as a means to defend one’s self as well as to intimidate at times. This dichotomy debates whether violence is the only solution to violence. In the case of the diner incident, there is a threat of pain and death, forcing desperation and preservation to become the controlling factor. There is no question that Tom did the right thing by protecting himself and his patrons, but the nature and reality of the violence is still difficult to stomach for those who witnessed it. To further show a pattern of history and legacy being passed on, Jack takes from his father’s example, consequently blurring the lines when he fights back against a bully in school who accuses him of weakness. Violent tendencies in youth are more primal as they supposedly don’t know any better or don’t have a complete understanding of their emotions, forcing them to act out instinctually. To have violence as a natural reaction, as in the case of the unsubstantiated bullying, confirms it as a means to mask a greater fear. To have Jack fight back asserts his power and self-worth but could easily lead to an unhealthy reliance. Like his father, Jack could end up having to walk away from a life where violence is a normal part of that life. But also like his father, will he ever truly be able to leave it? Violence can show up anywhere and creep back in at any time.
A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE is haunting and disturbing. It is a quiet film that moves at the pace one would expect in a town like Millbrook and when the violence unravels itself on screen, it is quick and sudden. It is cold, senseless and gory and it will both shock and jar you. The unsettling carnage lingers in silence and so will you.