A History of Violence (2003) 3.14/5 (2)
3.14/52

 

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Rating: The Bad – 54.1
Genre: Action
Duration: 96 mins
Director: Roger Spottiswoode
Stars: Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris

Okay, the first two acts of the film have a clichéd sub-plot involving an annoying son and some cartoon bullies but the premise was fascinating and had the potential to develop in to something really special. Small town man Tom Stall lives what seems to be the perfect small town life: close-knit family, respected around the community, and a solid little diner-business. Until one evening, two psychopaths stop by his diner and attempt to murder a waitress while holding the place up. Stall springs to life and disarms one of the assailants before killing him and his partner in a clear cut case of self-defence, albeit an incredibly heroic one. Things get even more interesting when some mob guys from Philadelphia, having seen Stall’s picture on the news, show up and claim that Tom is their old acquaintance, crazy Joey Cusack. Stall denies it vehemently and an enthralling guessing game ensues which sees even Stall’s family begin to doubt him. (Note: Spoilers are a necessary feature of this critique from this point on).

If you haven’t seen this film, then the set-up described should have you tingling with excitement and up to this point, the film lives up to any expectations you might have. Viggo Mortensen is excellent as everyman Tom Stall who just found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Cronenberg took his time getting there and had struck just the right balance between the more violent and calmer aspects to the story (with a fantastically staged opening shot capturing the essence of such an approach). Best of all, Ed Harris as the Philly wise-guy is electric in a role that has you guessing from the first time we see him. Unfortunately, just when Cronenberg should be ramping up the mystery and tantalising us with a resolution that is better off not provided, he resolves it flatly and in as manic and unintentionally farcical a fashion as you could possibly imagine. The third act descends into an eye-deceiving second-rate Jean-Claude Van Damme flick with unexplained martial arts ability, gratuitous sex scenes, illogical family behaviour, and cartoon gangsters everywhere.

There are those who have attempted to interpret this dramatic shift in tone as a facilitator for a kind of cultural commentary regarding violence and its place within us. However, there is simply no denying that any such commentaries could have been infinitely better explored by denying the audience the childish catharses of the third act. In fact, in resolving this story in the way it did, Cronenberg et al. refused to shine the light back on the audience and thus give credence to the notion that there was an intelligible social or cultural commentary in play.

It must be pointed out that, A History of Violence is an adaptation of a graphic novel of the same name (written by John Wagner or Vince Locke) and if anything, John Olson’s adaptation and Cronenberg’s interpretation do try to elevate the central mystery and consequently delay the thriller-action movie transition (there is no indictment here of Wagner or Locke as graphic novels are expected to be action heavy). But the fact that those making the film realised how important the mystery was but didn’t have the vision to protect it, is the biggest mistake a director of Cronenberg’s class is likely to make.

To say that this movie’s final act was a let-down is the understatement of all understatements. If you like brain-at-reception movies, then this is probably the film for you. However, if you believe a film which starts off intelligently should conclude in similar fashion (if not more so) then avoid, avoid, avoid! A History of Violence is a perfect example of a film that needs to be remade. Leave the classics alone, remake the films that had potential, but failed to live up to it because the writers didn’t have the perspective to see it.

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