A History of Violence works as a film, and leaves much of the Graphic Novel intact (while naturally omitting elements for run time, without risking too much clarity). The result is a somewhat Hollywoodized version of the original comic by John Wagner and Vince Locke, but let's face it, as filmed comics go Cronenberg leaves this one intact much more than most graphic literature adaptations. Let's just say the "Tom McKenna" character doesn't grow "Web Glands" in his wrists, nor does he walk around dressed undisguised as his alter ego. I think you hear me knockin', and I think I'm comin' in!
A History of Violence shows us two conflicting American worlds. The first is the dangerous world of two amoral killers who are cutting a two-man swath through the heartland, robbing from (and killing) the poor, and giving to themselves. Men, women and even children are proverbial cannon fodder to feed their warpath. The second is Anytown, USA, where mom-and-pop shops still have a foothold, husbands and wives call each other "Mrs." and "Mr." and good friends end conversations with "See you in Church!" Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is a staple of his community. He owns a quaint little diner, has a beautiful wife (Maria Bello's Edie Stall), a cute daughter (Heidi Hayes's Sarah Stall) and a fine, upstanding young son (Ashton Holmes' Jack Stall) who always does the right thing and whose biggest problem is having a mom as hot as Maria Bello.
When these two worlds collide, the shiatsu hits the Dat Phan!
Because fate has more jokes than Henny Youngman, Slappy White and Steve Allen combined, our two nasty criminals (Stephen McHattie and Greg Bryk) show right up at Stall's Diner, wavin' guns around and actin' a little more than just darned rude. As Tom makes quick work of their threat, he becomes an unfortunate hero, and gains the attention of the press, and everyone who watches or reads the press.
Herein lies the rub. Soon a gangster named Richie Cusack (William Hurt, shattering any claims at "type") is sending goons like the vengeful Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) to sniff around the old homestead to find out of our man Tom is actually some clown they know as "Joey". "Joey" being one of the sickest and most dangerous Mob Killers since Connor Looney!
So is Tom... Joey? Well of course he's not, don't be ridiculous! But the mob is relentless, and so everyone starts asking questions about whether or not this might be true. Soon ol' "Sheriff Sam" (Peter MacNeill) is asking if Tommy-boy is in witness protection, Jack's perfect veneer starts to crack and even Edie is asking where the name "Stall" even came from. I was wondering that myself, seeing as how it was "McKenna" in the comic book.
Cronenberg collects this story well and less worries about detailing the lives on both sides of the coin than he is on keeping that coin flipping for the full run time of this movie. It's a trick that few beyond Cronenberg can do without seeming scrambled and confusing (though Cronenberg is known for scrambled confusion, that element isn't present here). What's more, this is no mainstream American Movie, resulting in accusations of "SELL OUT" for the Davenator. No, this is most definitely an art-house flick, and while accessible to the masses (and racking up two Oscar nominations), this is most certainly not "Normal". Cronenberg is still weird, and his successful capturing of this provincial American Family meeting up with... a different kind of "family" from Wagner and Locke's graphic novel and John Olson's screenplay doesn't make this less weird, but even more so for its frightening familiarity.
Take note that this is a risky film for all involved and it could have devolved easily into a silly and mediocre interpretation of a very fine black and white comic. However, this doesn't happen mainly because of the great acting, making all the difference in the proverbial "fine line" between class and camp. Ed Harris is always good, but gives a decidedly twisted, and never once comically exaggerated performance. Meanwhile Hurt's performance is anything but calm. In fact he's as close to over-the-top as he can get and still be considered "good" in the role. Hurt is probably the LAST actor expected to be cast in this part, which shows all the more what a fantastic actor the man really is. The Hurt of The Accidental Tourist and Children of a Lesser God is nowhere to be found in A History of Violence.
Mortensen does a fine job as the model of calm middle-American normalcy who is as shocked as his confused bride that their world has changed. If there's any real complaint here it's that they look and feel a little too glamorous to fit the mold. Having lived in a town about the size of theirs, I don't remember all that many people looking quite like Sears Catalogue models. Those of us who did pretty soon moved to Southern California, like I did, long before we got to the age of raising teenagers. Speaking of which, for those of you wondering if you get to see Maria Bello naked in this one... you do. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your tastes) you also see ol' Viggo's ass.
It's true that there are some areas of ambiguity that could have been filled in with a bit more of the Graphic Novel's subtext filled in (which can be said for pretty much any "adaptation"). However, the creative team both in front of and behind the camera do a hell of a job of bringing this unlikely and unexpected drama to life, beginning, continuing and ending the story just right, and just realistic enough to work as a movie on its own. Four Stars out of Five for one of the better (if equally condensed) comic book adaptations out there, Cronenberg's A History of Violence. I rather wonder what Cronenberg could come up with next. Perhaps a flick where Peter Parker gets sucked into a video game, gets molested by an insect, discovers that the whole time he was really Clark Kent with amnesia and then has is head blown up by a transient psychic who then teleports away, only to find himself slowly turning into an insect himself, to find that he has an identical twin brother who moonlights as an Onnagata and to find that he really was his own father in a twisted version of a flashback. Then it can end with that insect man in another inverted flashback becoming the bug-molester of Peter Parker, but this time Peter Parker eats that fly because he's a Spider, man, and then just before the credits roll with a quiet, but echoing CRASH, we see that he slowly morphs into a rubbery typewriter. David, I think you hear me knockin' and I think we're makin' a movie together. So until you start returnin' Bro' K.'s calls, I'll see you in the next reel.
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