Sometimes a film presents a tremendous vision, but it comes wrapped in images that obstruct the vision for many. We see descriptions of “graphic violence” and “strong sexual content” and decide the movie isn’t for us.
I struggle with this. I watch films as a hobby and see some of these decisions as gratuitous. Then again, sometimes a deeply moving story lies just beyond their sheen.
“A History of Violence” is very much like the latter. Based on a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke, “Violence” tells the story of Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), a family man who runs a café in a tiny Indiana town. But bad men come to that town and attempt to do bad things in his café. Tom reacts and kills them.
When the 24-hour news cycle proclaims Tom a hero and sticks his story out into the world, this simple man’s life becomes very complicated.
Mobsters from Philadelphia arrive in Tom’s café, and their leader, Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris), is convinced that Tom Stall is not Tom Stall—but mob enforcer Joey Cusack. This Joey Cusack disappeared from Philadelphia about 20 years ago, but not before disfiguring Carl and leaving him wanting payback.
Tom’s wife, Edie (Maria Bello), stands up to Fogarty and asks him to leave the café. What follows is a story about how violence works in a cycle.
Edie believes Tom is not Joey Cusack, but as the story unfolds, a seed of doubt gets sown. How did Tom so masterfully dispatch those bad guys in the café? Why are these desperate men here asking about her husband? Could Tom Stall be Joey Cusack?
Has Tom reinvented himself as a family man? If so, must he kill to remain so?
“A History of Violence” reformulates the western for a postmodern setting. As violence escalates, the film owes as much to Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” as it does to any gangster or mob film. Tom Stall and Eastwood’s Will Munny are kindred in that both are visited with violence in safe settings of their creation.
They can run nowhere to hide from the violence. Word always goes forth from that place of believed safety, and for safety to return, violence must be done.
The film delves even deeper into the nature of violence. Director David Cronenberg ruminates on how violence has served redemptive purposes, getting us to linger on images of crucifixes worn by Tom and Edie. Just as the violence of the cross delivered a savior, so does Cronenberg declare that violence is the means of redemption for Tom Stall.
Like Mel Gibson’s vision for “The Passion of the Christ,” Cronenberg wants to show there is no redemption without violence. As the writer of Hebrew declares, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin.” Without violence, there will be no safety for Tom Stall or his family.
The notion of shed blood as a prerequisite for redemption is a long-running theme throughout history and cultures, and Cronenberg’s film presents itself as a potent variant on that theme.
Mike Parnell is pastor of Beth Car Baptist Church in Halifax, Va.
MPAA Rating: R for strong brutal violence, graphic sexuality, nudity, language and some drug use. Reviewer’s Note: This film is not for everyone. It has many images of brutal, graphic violence, as well as strong sexuality between Tom and Edie. Much of this is beyond what is called for, but those were nevertheless the director’s choices. Hidden in this story of brutality, though, is a theme of redemption that is as powerful as the images that make us want to turn away.
Director: David Cronenberg
Writer: Josh Olson (based on the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke)
Cast: Tom Stall: Viggo Mortensen; Edie Stall: Maria Bello; Carl Fogarty: Ed Harris; Richie Cusack: William Hurt; Jack Stall: Ashton Holmes; Sarah Stall: Heidi Hayes; Sheriff Sam Carney: Peter MacNeill.
The movie’s official Web site is here.