Wednesday, June 2, 2010
A History of Violence
The movie opens with a long scene focusing on two remorseless killers leaving a brutal and bloody mess behind them in a minor robbery, even thoughtlessly killing a child, as if to let us know that there are some ugly men in the world who will hurt and kill whatever they need to get what they want.
We are quickly given the contrast of Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen)serving customers at a small town diner which he owns. The warm and meaningless small talk tells us that this is definitely the flip side of the coin we opened with.
Tom is living out a low key American dream. His wife Edie (Maria Bello) is beautiful, his kids are well behaved and they're all crazy about each other. Tom knows all of his customers and things couldn't be happier. While there's no shortage of action in the film, this isn't a traditional shoot 'em up. Cronenberg uses Tom's family to look at violence from many angles. After the benign diner set-up we quickly move to another threat of violence, with Tom's son Jack getting bullied in a locker room.
When confronted by the alpha bully, Jack keeps his cool and dissects the bully's intimidation tactics.
Jack Stall: Yeah, you're right. I'm both little and a faggot. You got me dead to rights.
Bobby Jordan: Come on, chickenshit, let's do this!
[He pushes Jack back against the locker booth]
Jack Stall: What would be the point? I mean, you win. You win, you win. You've established your, uh, alpha male standing; uh, you've established my unworthiness; but doing violence to me just seems
Jack Stall: pointless and cruel.
Bobby Jordan: Don't you think! Let's do this, you punk bitch!
Jack Stall: Shouldn't that be "little, punkass, chickenshit, faggot bitch"?
Once he gets a few laughs the situation is defused, but not for good of course. Jack has most likely only stalled the inevitable confrontation and perhaps made it worse for humiliating them. Later on that night the bullies see Jack and a friend hanging out outside, while driving by and resolve to stop and kick Jack's ass, until distracted by the killers from the opening, who almost run into them as they head to Tom's diner.
Things get more serious at the diner, where the killers stop in for a cup of coffee and the chance to make a couple bucks by relieving Tom of the money in the register. We already know these guys have no qualms about killing anyone. After the older killer gets antagonistic, Tom tries to keep things calm and send his waitress home. They don't let her leave and as they're about to kill her to prove they're serious, Tom jumps into action and quickly kills both men. The event makes the news and soon Tom is a celebrated local hero.
Before long the media attention draws out Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) claiming he knows Tom from the past in Philadelphia. He also refers to Tom insistently as "Joey Cusack" even arguing when Tom corrects him. Tom keeps cool despite Fogerty's clear menace. Edie is bothered and threatens to call the cops, prompting Fogarty to leave. She calls the cops anyway reaching the sheriff, Sam Carney, (Peter MacNeill) who stops them on the way out of town. After looking up their ID's, Sam shows up at the Stalls house to warn Tom and Edie that they're dealing with organized crime "Bad Men" he says. He finds no information on Joey Cusack but does find a Ritchie Cusack, the leader of a Philadelphia crime syndicate. Sam asks Tom if he's in a witness protection program, but Tom insists he knows nothing about anything going on.
The next day Tom sees Fogarty's car pass the diner headed towards the house. He calls Edie and tells her to grab the shotgun before running home. It turns out to be a false alarm, as no one shows up at the house. Jack notices that Tom is shaken however and questions his dad about it. Tom insists they have him confused with someone else. They are still being watched however as Edie discovers when she runs into Fogarty at the mail when her daughter Sarah is missing for a moment and Fogarty happens to be "keeping an eye on her." Edie is angry of course, but Fogarty tells her to ask Tom about Ritchie,and to ask him why he's so good at killing people. Edie runs off angry and shaken.
Meanwhile Jack is at school facing the bully again. When the bully forces a confrontation, Jack cuts loose and beats him savagely, putting him in the hospital. Tom is very angry, insisting that his family does not solve problems by hitting. Jack responds by saying "No, in this family we shoot them" Tom slaps him across the face and Jack runs off leaving Tom and Edie to discuss her talk with Fogarty. Before they can finish talking they hear a car pull up and Tom (with shotgun) and Edie run out and find Fogarty and a few thugs outside holding Jack, insisting that Tom put down the gun and go to Philly with them. They let Jack go when Tom approaches them unarmed. Jack and Edie are both watching the scene from the window when one of the thugs pulls a gun to Tom's head presumably to shoot him. Tom quickly kills the man with his bare hands, takes his gun and shoots a second thug leaving only Fogarty who shoots Tom. Fogarty asks Tom if he has anything to say before he's killed. And Tom say "I should've killed you back in Philly." Fogarty isn't able to follow through however as Jack shows up and kills Fogarty with the shotgun, firmly establishing the idea that violence comes easy to the Stalls (or rather Cusacks)
Edie confronts Tom in the hospital, telling him that she saw "Joey" the killer Fogarty mentioned. She asks him why he killed people. Tom responds that 'Joey" killed people, but he thought he'd killed Joey, as if he and Joey were different people. She realizes that every aspect of their life together was made up. She storms out, unable to cope at the moment. Tom recovers quickly and returning home, deals with the same issues with Jack. The Sheriff shows up concerned about the incident. He finds it hard to believe that the mobsters would risk so much if he was the wrong man.Edie shows up while they're talking and despite her anger she defends Tom completely.
Of course it isn't long before Tom gets a phone call from his brother Ritchie (John Hurt), who asks if Joey is coming to see him, or if he'll have to go see Joey. Tom of course realizes he has to settle things and heads for Philadelphia to see his brother. The outcome of the meeting leaves the question of violence open. Clearly Tom/Joey has a gift for killing. Is it a part of his nature that he can't escape? And if so, what about his son? Is it a tool that can be used for the right or wrong ends? The only thing clear is that it couldn't be hidden forever, and once revealed it changes everything making a really big mess.That, and that once it starts it doesn't just go away.
Cronenberg does a brilliant job contrasting the warm and pleasant tones of the idyllic small tone, with the ugliness of violence, changing to almost black when Joey heads to Philadelphia. The performances are all flawless. Viggo Mortensen gives Tom as much likable small town charm, as he gives Joey cold blooded and efficient menace. John Hurt is tremendous as his selfish psychopathic brother. Although it's a very brief role Hurt gives it enough weight that we begin to almost understand where the Tom/Joey conflict came from. Maria Bello plays her complex emotions concerning the pull between Tom and Joey masterfully. And of course Ed Harris is great in his also brief role. A wonderful movie that thoughtfully examines the issues it deals with and has enough respect not to pretend to answer them.