Review: ‘A History of Violence’

Watching is like biting into a sour pickle hidden in the bottom of your ice cream cone; whatever the reason for it being there, is it wrong to expect what you paid for will be corrected before concluding business?

Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is a small-town family man who runs a diner. When two thugs randomly pick his eatery for a quick heist at gunpoint, Stall suddenly and quickly kills the men and becomes a local hero. Enter Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris), a sinister-looking man with an obvious past that keeps calling Tom “Joey” and that he’s from Philadelphia. Tom doesn’t appear to know the man, but Carl turns up everywhere, even stalking Tom’s wife (Maria Bello) and his children. Whether Tom really is Joey or not, it soon becomes inevitable that a confrontation between these men will certainly take place.

My thoughts on this film are some of the hardest I’ve had to sort through for a while. My initial impression is that I didn’t like the film, but I’ve questioned that by wondering why I can’t get it out of my head; how could I think this one was so poor if I couldn’t stop thinking about it? I also initially thought that the film feigned drama in the guise of an action film as an excuse to show disturbing content, but then I realized that the lack of consequences surrounding each violent act was in fact the source of the drama.

When something happens that seems so terrible we don’t think we can go on, we still do; children especially seem able to move past such things and continue. As adults, right and wrong is replaced with reward and punishment. Nothing is “wrong” unless you’re in church, but if you’re caught committing a crime by breaking a law, then you can be punished. The fact that Viggo Mortensen’s character seems to be invisible to the law (and isn’t exactly going to confess to anything that will get his wife and kids taken away from him), here we have the source of our drama. As each act of the film unfolds, the pressure builds atop one man trying to hold everything he’s worked for together.

At the end of the film In The Bedroom, Tom Wilkinson’s character resolves to do something that he feels he must do and bears the guilt for, but he’s resolved in that action because he has given his own personal honor and reason to it. In contrast, no matter what action Mortensen’s character takes in Violence, he looks like he’s ripped up inside and one heartbeat short of putting a gun to his head. Since the fact that he doesn’t snap and continues to go on appears to be the point of the film, it’s easy to appreciate that the filmmakers did not take the easy way out.

And that’s when the problem hit me. The filmmakers didn’t take ANY way out, abandoning the characters at a critical crossroads (the filmmakers having made their point) and ending the film there. This was the same problem I had with Richard Gere’s Unfaithful (in addition to his character hijacking the story from Diane Lane over halfway through). What happens next? The next day? A week later? Sadly, there is a finality to death, a conviction, or merely an arrest that says that, somehow, atonement was reached; not necessarily a happy Hollywood ending, but an ending nonetheless. Everything about Violence says it isn’t going to end like this, and then it does, similar to the cheated feeling watching the sailors of A Perfect Storm act out an adventure to survive only to die without any time for drama at all.

Well acted and beautifully shot, A History of Violence simply fails to deliver what it promises to fulfill another agenda. From the “Reckless Youth” segment of Amazon Women on the Moon, you can almost hear Paul Bartel as the Doctor saying, “Don’t make yourself unclean like Mary Brown… or Tom Stall.”

(a two skull recommendation out of four)

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