When one thinks of the name David Cronenberg, the term normal doesn’t exactly come to mind. From “Dead Ringers” and “Videodrome” through to “Naked Lunch” and “The Fly”, it always seemed like the Canadian-native director has been inhaling too much of Hunter S. Thompson’s second-hand smoke before he started work on a project. With age however comes a yearning to do something different, and with this he’s done just that – delivering his most accessible film yet.
“A History of Violence” plays out like a pseudo modern western meets the revenge elements of such 70’s films as “Straw Dogs”. A quiet methodical drama, it follows a drastically simple story with very familiar themes of redemption and family, that unfolds at a languid pace which will test the patience of most filmgoers. Yet peppering the long stretches of drawn out (but never dull) conversations are fast and intense bursts of brutal bone-crunching violence and refreshingly graphic sex to shock one back to attention. This schizophrenic pacing works to its advantage, helping add spice to the admittedly conventional material along with effectively showing the true brutal impact that quick, ugly realistic violence has rather than the choreographed ballet it has become on film these days.
Is that enough though? As a film its superbly made – the visuals are interesting, the performances very strong, the issues it brings up are both relevant and somewhat timeless, the reveals are well played out, and the direction comes with an assuredness only truly great veteran directors have. Then again considering this is a Cronenberg movie, his fans may be disappointed that this is all there is. ‘History’ is a very upfront film with practically nothing going on under the surface. It spells out everything it wants to say on the screen in stark black and white, swapping between painfully brutal to hauntingly quiet with little in the way of middle ground.
The effect will ultimately and decisively split an audience in its reactions, no more aptly demonstrated by the film’s one take opening sequence involving two guys in a somewhat laconic conversation. It’ll be a great scene to some, boring as hell to others. Thankfully if you find yourself one of the former you’ll really get into this. Mortensen delivers with his stalwart quiet heroic lead who may not be as wholesome as he seems, Harris & Hurt chew the scenery with deliciously delectable evil roles, whilst Bello and Holmes display their best work yet as members of a family threatening to be torn apart.
The script is tight with only one or two minor flaws, but can’t help but feel like its stretching a short story out in order to fit a theatrical runtime. To fill out the film it interjects things like average family life subplots (the son is bullied at school by a closeted jock), a sense of playfulness (Bello role plays a cheerleader before some steamy sex), quick nudity (Bello frontal, Viggo ass), the odd darkly comic laugh, and several unexpected but smart twists involving the main character’s background. Yet towards the last act it stumbles a little delivering a satisfying if somewhat emotionally shortchanged conclusion.
Often the film will think ahead of where the audience is at and uses that to pull you into its train of thought on how violence can actually be a good thing at times. It’s a rich but stark movie, deceptively simple in many ways. At times it’s too drawn out for its own good, and it is certainly more mainstream than we’re used to from Cronenberg. Nevertheless, it’s one of the better dramas of the year so far – even if at times it feels like an artistic genius is painting by numbers.