A History of Violence, 96 mins, rated MA15+, opening in cinemas on 9 March 2006.


(This is my review as  published in the March 2006 issue of The New South Wales Law Society Journal)

Despite its name, this film is not a documentary. It is a work of fiction. The screenplay by Josh Olsen is based (loosely) on a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke. On one level, this is a violent thriller. But it’s more: Village Voice critic J. Hoberman has called it a “droll and ruthless meta-thriller”. Director David Cronenberg has transformed what might have been a routine – if sometimes brutal – mystery story into a thoughtful exploration of the nature and consequences of our capacity for violence.

Cronenberg has assembled a great cast. Viggo Mortensen (best known as Aragorn from the Lord of the Rings films) plays Tom Stall, the owner of a friendly neighbourhood diner in a small country town in Indiana. Maria Bello plays Tom’s wife, a lawyer (she was William H Macy’s girlfriend in The Cooler, Wayne Kramer, 2003). They’ve been married for 20 years, and are still very much in love. They have a teenage son (newcomer Ashton Holmes) and a 6-year-old daughter (Heidi Hayes). There’s also the excellent Ed Harris, and William Hurt who’s been nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

Cronenberg spends quite a bit of time setting up the normal – if not completely idyllic – life of this family group. In some ways their life is hyper-normal. But this is a Cronenberg film, and so nothing is as it appears. The film opens with a scene of shocking violence, and then returns to the normal lives of this seemingly happy family. But one day there’s trouble at the diner, and Tom reveals a side of himself that his family and friends have not seen before. Some very bad men attack Tom and his staff, and Tom responds quickly – with deadly force.

Tom has saved the day and is now a hero, but a most reluctant one. His life, and the lives of his family begin to spin out of control. Nationwide TV coverage brings him to the notice of some unsavoury characters. They visit Tom. They say they know him. But do they?

Cronenberg is such an interesting director. His films bear hallmarks. They are often quite violent, showing the results of violence in graphic detail. He is interested in the body, body parts, and wounds. Sometimes the body will be part human, part machine. He loves electronics and gadgets. And he explores the dark side of human nature, both sexually and morally.

A History of Violence recalls several film genres. First, film noir (where man’s existence is often threatened by dark, outside forces beyond his control), and then the western, particularly the “revisionist” western, where the man of peace (often a retired gunman) is forced to pick up a gun to defend the innocent. A History of Violence also recalls the films of Sam Peckinpah, who was for a time vilified for glorifying violence. These days we recognise that his films – such as The Wild Bunch (1969) and Straw Dogs (1971) – were actually a serious attempt to expose the reality of violence, showing its consequences in a stark, realistic way, demystified and unromanticised. One disturbing scene in A History of Violence seems to refer directly to the notorious rape scene in Straw Dogs. Cronenberg has done this for a reason. He is always pushing us to explore the dark side of human nature and to think about what we are capable of.

Cronenberg’s elegantly constructed film includes many scenes which pair with later scenes to show two sides of the same kind of action. For example, one scene of light-hearted sexual role-play is echoed later when another kind of role-play is revealed.  And the final scene – involving a family meal – echoes the earlier scenes of normal family life. But now there is an overlay that gives it chilling resonance.

The film explores issues of identity confusion, and considers fundamental  questions such as: to what extent can we ever really know anyone? And: how well can we even know ourselves?