A History of Violence (2005)

Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, William Hurt, Ashton Holmes

Directed by: David Cronenberg

Rating: 1 2 3 4 and a half

Mario Bello and Viggo Mortensen in David Cronenberg's A History of Violence

In 1975, Canadian director David Cronenberg invented 'body horror'. His debut feature, Shivers, envisaged a society infected by a parasite which turns them into sex mad zombies. In Rabid, a skin graft results in a rabies like plague which destroys the city of Montreal. 1986's The Fly sees Jeff Goldblum transformed into a monstrous, killer insect. you get the (oozing, bloody and generally revoltingly gory) picture. Yet A History of Violence is not a horror film, it's a thriller, and the plague which spreads to infect the central protagonists is not a physical disease but a state of mind: violence.

Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is a mild mannered church goer, a pillar of society, who lives with his (somewhat nauseatingly) close and loving family in a small town in Indiana in Mid West America. His life is peaceful, happy and uneventful.. until two killers burst into the diner he runs and hold his staff to gunpoint. Without batting an eyelid, Tom disarms them and shoots them both stone dead.

Hailed as an all American hero by the townsfolk and the media, we can't help asking ourselves the question his wife Edie (Maria Bello) will also have to answer, namely: how did he get so good at killing? And when a sinister Philadelphia mobster Carl Fogarty (the brilliant Ed Harris) shows up, complete with black saloon car and goons, claiming to know Tom from a former life, his peaceful existence begins to unravel badly.

Ed Harris as mobster Carl Fogarty in A History of Violence

But is Tom the man Fogarty claims he is, a ruthless, murderous gangster, or is this just a case of mistaken identity? Oh no, I'm not giving that one away - far be it for me to spoil this fantastic, constantly surprising film for you. Although up to a point, it doesn't matter anyway. Tom's act of vigilante violence alone is enough to infect those around him with the insidious plague of physical brutality. Next thing we know, Edie is loading up the family rifle, whilst dweeby son Jack (Ashton Holmes), who up until this point has relied on quick wits and self-deprecation to face down the school bullies who torment him, has hospitalised the class jock with a few well aimed, vicious blows. 'We are not a family who solve things with our fists!' cries Tom in horror, before slapping his son across the face. Oops.

And then there are the sex scenes: raw and honest, they don't make entirely comfortable viewing, but are integral to Cronenberg's theme. Not since Don't Look Now have the mindsets of two characters been revealed so brilliantly and eloquently through on screen intercourse. So whilst, pre-killing, we see Tom and Edie romping playfully like teenagers left alone in the house, afterwards they are reduced to a desperate, bestial coupling that's almost painful to watch.

Don't mess with Viggo Mortensen as Tom Stall in A History of Violence

Actions definitely speak louder than words in this film, but the occasionally lifeless script is resuscitated brilliant by some fantastic performances. Viggo Mortensen gives a powerfully intense turn as Stall, his terrible transformation from good natured everyman to haunted killer every bit as physical and convincing as Seth Brundle's mutation into the Fly. Forget Aragorn - if Sauron had found himself up against Tom Stall's dark side he'd have thought twice before trying any funny business. Ring? What ring? Keep it! Meanwhile, Ed Harris is suitably chilling as the menacing mobster Fogarty, whilst William Hurt saunters on screen to steal the final scenes with effortless panache.

A History of Violence is a genuinely gripping, intelligent, adult film that will have you on the edge of your seat with suspense, popcorn frozen in mid air as you gape in horror at the cold, casual, visceral nature of the violence on screen. What, you didn't think Cronenberg had gone soft on us, did you? Just because there are no erupting, phallic parasites or oozing, misplaced orifices on show, it doesn't mean we're denied some truly shocking moments of bloodshed and brutality.

Honest, unconventional and deeply thought provoking, this film worms its way under your skin and into your mind as pervasively as any contagious disease. Cronenberg is a master at drawing an audience into his web and leaving us there, paralysed, to gawp in disgust and fascination as the cycle of violence escalates. Yes, the film can be seen as a lesson in walking the fine line between good and evil, or in this case, self defence and murder, and as such, is a damning indictment of America's casually violent, gung-ho gun culture - but it's also a damn fine movie. Guy Ritchie, I hope you're paying attention: this is how you make a thriller.

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