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‘A History of Violence’ more history than violence

Stewart Oksenhorn
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Takashi Seida/newline.wireimage. | newline.wireimage.com

Most everyone I’ve spoken to about “A History of Violence” – and that’s a hefty number, as I’ve been talking about it a lot – wants to know just how violent director David Cronenberg’s film is.

I counted 13 dead people, all of them killed in gruesome fashion. The camera lingers over at least one of the corpses, and it is a memorable depiction of killing: Cronenberg brings the head into a close-up, practically savoring the image of the dead skull emptying its blood onto the floor of a small-town, middle-America diner. At other times, bullets pierce heads and chests, and necks are broken. In the nonlethal category of violence, a foot is stabbed through the bones, and there’s a good bit of extreme, school-style bullying. All of the mayhem is done from close range; far-off snipers or bombs set to timers would only make the carnage more remote.So yes, it is a violent movie. But of the two key words in the title, I think people tend to overlook the more important one. The Canadian Cronenberg has made numerous films that traffic in gore, none more so than “Crash,” a 1996 film that festishized car accidents. His latest work, however, by far the most traditional narrative Cronenberg has created, is made a masterpiece because of the way it deals with history. Personal history, family history and, raised only in the near-invisible background but there nonetheless, the violent history of this violent country, with its age-old mobsters, school bullies, petty thieves and wanton killings.Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) seems to have an uncommonly placid history. He runs Stall’s Diner, a spot on Main Street, Indiana, where everyone knows everyone and the coffee is served in old-school pots, suggesting that Tom has been there from time immemorial. But in a deft touch of script-writing, there is an early clue of a hole in Tom’s past. “We missed out on being teenagers together,” says Edie (Maria Bello), Tom’s gorgeous and loving wife. That bit of dialogue works on two levels: We know there is a question mark about Tom’s history. And Edie’s come-on leads to the first of the film’s two indelible sex scenes, each thrilling in a totally different way. In this one, Edie corrects their divergent teen years by getting into her old cheerleader outfit. (The sex scenes are so strong, it might have been fitting for Cronenberg to squeeze the word sex into the title, assuming you’re not into the whole brevity thing.)

This idyll is shattered, and Tom’s past called into question, by a random act of violence in the diner. In a masterful act of self-defense, Tom breaks up an attempt at robbery and further mischief, leaving bodies numbers one and two on the floor. Tom’s accidental heroism brings more unwelcome visitors to the diner: a one-eyed Philadelphia mobster, Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris), who insists that Tom is actually Joey Cusack, a fabled killer who left his brother Richie’s (William Hurt) mob years ago. Tom professes ignorance, but Fogarty is not about to be dismissed with verbal reassurances.Meanwhile, Tom’s son Jack (Ashton Holmes) has physical invasions of his own to deal with. The local bully has zeroed in on Jack, and as Tom’s mild-mannered veneer is peeled back, Jack follows suit. Two generations of Stalls have now traded pacifism for reluctant, if skillful, retaliation.As masks are peeled away, and histories exposed, “A History of Violence” becomes a film about identity. Can a person ever leave an old life behind, or is it bound to rear its head? Can love and relationships be built on shaky history? Cronenberg raises these questions in an original, gutsy manner that even allows for strokes of humor. He gets note-perfect performances from all of his principals. It makes “A History of Violence” not just the movie of the year, but one for the history books.

“A History of Violence” shows Sunday and Monday, Jan. 22-23, at the Wheeler Opera House.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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