Catalog From the Beyond is my chance to take a look at some of the movies found a little further down cinematic icons’ filmographies. Most of our favorite directors have plenty to offer beyond the material they’ve become irrevocably linked to over the years. These films may be only slightly lesser-known than their big name counterparts, or they may be movies no one has ever heard of. They might be hidden gems that don’t get enough love, or it may be a title that jumps out of the horror genre.
In fact, that’s just the type of movie I’d like to start with in my first go-around. It’s a movie that, while certainly dark, isn’t typically acknowledged as a horror film. It is, however, the work of one of my favorite horror directors of all-time. Today, we take a look at A History of Violence.
I very much doubt that anyone reading this website is unfamiliar with David Cronenberg, a gift to the genre from Canada. Specializing in surreal body horror, Cronenberg has been creeping us out since the 1970s with the likes of Shivers, Videodrome, and of course his masterpiece, The Fly. But as his career continued into the ’90s and the 2000s, Cronenberg branched out and made movies that, while outside the horror genre, still incorporated horrific elements.
A History of Violence tells the story of Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), owner of a small-town diner and family man who lives with his wife, Edie (Maria Bello), and two kids, Jack (Ashton Holmes) and Sarah (Heidi Hayes). When Tom kills two would-be attackers at his diner, he is hailed as a hero by the media, but subsequently draws the attention of Carl Fogerty (Ed Harris), an Irish mob boss from Philadelphia who is convinced that Tom is actually Joey Cusack, a mob enforcer who fled town decades earlier after viciously assaulting Fogerty. As Fogerty becomes more aggressive in his assertion of Tom’s identity, Tom is forced to fend off not only the relentless mobster, but also his family’s suspicions that he’s not the man he seems to be.
Perhaps what most attracts me to this movie is its ability to comfort me and disconcert me in equal measure. On the comfortable side, Cronenberg introduces us to the Stalls by giving us some slice-of-life moments that play out in very endearing ways. Tom and Edie have been married for years and try roleplaying to spice up their sex life. Their son, Jack, is dealing with the doldrums of small-town life, including a bully so stereotypical he spends most of the movie wearing his varsity letter jacket. If we saw only these scenes, we could be fooled into believing that we’re in for a cute but safe dramedy about life in middle America.
We know that’s not going to be the case, however, because A) we know David Cronenberg, and B) we’ve already been introduced to serial killers Leland (Stephen McHattie) and Billy (Greg Bryk). As the opening credits roll, we see the brutality they’re capable of displayed in ways that I won’t ruin here for those who haven’t seen the movie. But as they enter Tom’s diner, we know that Tom’s idyllic life is about to be turned upside down. And when Tom is forced to defend himself and his patrons from Leland and Billy, we see the classic Cronenberg approach to violence. There is no beautifully choreographed fight sequence with slow-motion dodging of bullets. The action takes all of about fifteen seconds, and by the end of it, Tom is injured and Billy is dead. But the centerpiece of the scene is Leland, who takes a gunshot to the back of the head that is messy, grotesque, and dares the audience to take a good, long look at the consequences of violence, regardless of whether or not said violence is justified.
In addition to horrific gore, Cronenberg also has a knack for inducing a sense of dread throughout the film. He constantly makes us wonder where the threat is coming from. Is Fogerty correct in his assertion of Tom’s identity? How far is he willing to go in order to be vindicated? Should he be vindicated? All of these questions induce a sense of unease in our minds. And speaking of unease, I would be remiss if I did not take the opportunity to mention Richie, played by the great William Hurt, who, with only about ten minutes of screen time, conveys a sense of menace that many actual horror movies lack in their entire running times.
Hurt’s performance isn’t a fluke, either, as everyone in this movie is cast perfectly. If Viggo Mortensen caught my attention as Aragorn, King of Gondor, then he turned me into a lifelong fan as Tom Stall. He plays a warm, loving father for most of the film, but when push comes to shove, he has a snarl that will make you take a step or two back from the screen. The way he navigates so naturally between the two personas is truly something to behold.
Maria Bello is also stellar as Edie, a character forced to reexamine everything she thought was true about her family, her life, and even herself. It’s a tall order, but Bello is more than up to the task. And as for Ed Harris, it’s probably not fair for me to grade his work here, since he could spend two hours with his back to the camera making fart noises and I’d likely nominate him for an Academy Award.
I suppose it’s a bit odd that I actually view A History of Violence, a movie with such dark themes, as a “comfort food” film, but it’s literally a movie that I’ll put in whenever I call out sick from work. It’s a movie I return to time and time again when I need something that hits all of the right notes. I love me some dark themes, but I also love when people persevere through difficult situations and come out the other side with something left intact. And that’s what we get here.
Cronenberg gives us a story in which violence is ugly and pervasive, causing a ripple effect that spreads to those around us in ways the perpetrator might not even realize. But he does so through characters that remain sympathetic and endearing even as their world collapses around them. What’s more, he offers hope, if only a tiny bit, that our capacity for darkness need not always define us. I take comfort in that. Plus, I really like watching Viggo Mortensen hit people.