A History of Violence

A History of Violence 2005

Slowly but surely I’m progressing through some non-superhero comic book adaptations this month. This is one area of movies that I cover for this site where I’m extremely unfamiliar with the movies. Before I started reviewing movies for this site, I had already seen dozens of superhero movies which I’ve been re-watching to review, but movies in this category are much fewer and further between. So when I picked A History of Violence to watch the other night, it was honestly based solely on the runtime, being about half an hour shorter than the other options I was considering. I knew absolutely nothing about this movie other than the title, the fact that it starred Viggo Mortenson, and it was based on a graphic novel. What I ended up watching was a very compelling story about a man trying to live a simple life only to have his dark past come back to haunt him, causing him to find a way to free himself of that past once and for all. This movie really surprised me in a lot of great ways, and I was never entirely sure of what direction it was going to take until the credits finally rolled. Movies like this are why I so greatly enjoy writing for this site.

A History of Violence

It wouldn’t be too hard for me to put this plot into superhero terms. Tom has been living his secret identity for years until one day he decides to become a hero. This act causes his past life as a villain to be revealed to his family and he steps back into the role of that villain to try and turn him back into the hero he wants to be. While there aren’t any costumes, there are definitely some secret identities, or at least one. There are also plenty of moments where you can really feel like they could have been ripped from the pages of a comic book, though I couldn’t tell you for sure as I haven’t read the original comic. Mortenson really captures the duality of both his family man persona Tom, and his coldly violent mobster Joey.

A panel from the original comic written by John Wagner with art by Vince Locke

A panel from the original comic written by John Wagner with art by Vince Locke

One thing that did surprise me a bit was the moments of gore in this movie. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise considering the title, but the movie either lulls you into a false sense of security with the opening scene following these two serial killers finishing up a motel job. The first thing you see are just some bloody, smeared handprints and a couple slumped and bloody bodies. But when it comes time for them to take care of the young child that walks in, it’s just a gunshot and a quick cut to black. So when the scene comes later where Tom attacks and kills the two in order to save everyone in his diner, and you get to see the bloody mess he makes of the guy’s face, it’s more of a shock to see the full results of that mess. This is especially true when compared to the rest of the movie, in fact aside from one moment towards the end, every act of violence carried out by the villains in this movie either takes place off screen, or is towards Tom while they are fighting. Whereas nearly every death that Tom enacts is seen in all it’s bloody glory.

Violence 2

Of course, every hero has to have a villain, and the villains in this movie are all excellent in their own ways. There are essentially three of them: the two serial killers in the beginning, Carl Fogarty and his goons, and Richie Cusack and his goons. Even with their limited screen time, the two guys in the beginning make a strong impression with the coldness of their killings, it also doesn’t hurt that the last thing I had seen one of them in was a very similar kind of twisted killer. Ed Harris was fantastic as Carl Fogarty, even while he is acting very pleasant and sociable, there is such an air of menace surrounding him, especially during the scene in the mall. He’s being such a nice guy, but just the way he’s doing it and the knowledge brought to the scene beforehand gives him a fearsome presence. And of course, William Hurt as Joey’s brother Ritchie plays a very similar character as Ed Harris, with the mix of the brotherly love for his family alongside the loyalty to his profession and the dirty deeds that profession encompasses.

Violence Harris

The action scenes are also very well done, they almost all lead in with a slow build up with ever increasing tension until Joey bursts into action, taking over the situation and almost immediately turning the tables into his favor, even if he never quite comes out of the situation completely unscathed. The family dynamics in the movie were also well developed, and something that initially makes you think that it’s a cliched family until you realize that there are things underneath the surface for pretty much everyone, not just Tom’s secret identity. There’s the teenager who’s being bullied at school, but he never feels like a wimp. He stands up to the bully from the very first situation without resorting to violence, and later on, when he does resort to violence, it’s a bit of a shock at what ends up happening. Even Tom’s wife, who believes his initial lies as he tries to cover up his past, and is repulsed to the point of vomiting when he does reveal the truth isn’t just the pillar of stability or the betrayed lover. There’s a part of her that’s turned on by the danger, and even the final scene where Tom returns to his family, there’s not the expected moment of his youngest daughter rushing into his arms after he’s been gone without notice for at least a couple days. Instead, there’s a palpable air of tension that even she seems to be aware of before calmly grabbing another dinner setting so he can join the family for dinner. It’s not going to be life as usual, but they’re sure going to try. From beginning to end, this movie had my attention and never let it up, I never knew exactly where it was going even though I had some ideas. It surprised me, it shocked me, it even made me laugh in a couple places, and I loved it. Until next time, this has been Bubbawheat for Flights, Tights, and Movie Nights.

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About Flights, Tights, and Movie Nights

I'm a comic book movie enthusiast who completed my goal to watch and review over 100 superhero and comic book related movies on this blog in 2012, my goal is to continue to find and watch and review every superhero movie ever made.

Posted on January 22, 2014, in 00's movies and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. Good review Bubba. May be an unsurprising pick for me, but possibly my favorite Cronenberg movie. While I’m not a huge fan of his work, I still feel like he gets most of these story-elements right and allows his script/cast to do most of the talking, something we don’t usually see.

  2. Great review. This was actually one of the films I reviewed for the very first Film Friday.

  3. I saw this movie on a first date. It was hella awkward when Viggo Mortenson and what’s her face started full on 69-ing each other in the beginning of the movie. After that first hurdle, I wound up really liking this movie.

  4. Great pick and great review, Bubbawheat! One of the few Cronenberg films I actually own and the graphic novel is at only one library here in Rochester and I pick it up for a re-read at least once a year.

    I like how you placed the material into “Superhero” terms. Good way to look at it. I also loved the panel you picked out for the post. Wagner and Locke’s work is incredible on that book.

    Good job, Bubba. Keep up the great work!

    • I wanted to do a side-by-side with the panel, but there was too much motion to get a good screencap of that scene. As for putting it into superhero terms, it was surprisingly easy and it follows the general format of my reviews. I’m not going to purposely try to do that with the other ones I watch, unless they lend themselves to it. Thanks a lot!

  5. Great review, Bubbawheat. I like how you point out the way the violence is portrayed; I think it’s done that way to highlight the mental states of the perpetrators. The serial killers, the contract hitmen, etc…. it’s not really “real” to them. Their empathy is blocked, so in a metaphorical sense they don’t “see” the violence. But Tom has had an awakening; to him, the violence is real. Even when he deems it necessary, he can’t deny the effect it has on him emotionally.

    Of course, this is contrasted with the fact that Joey is who he used to be, and therefore is part of who he is. I always figured the stairway sex scene was part his wife being turned on by the violence, but also part her recognizing that this conflicted violent man is more the real Tom than the pure pacifist. He can’t bury Joey completely and still be completely himself.

  6. I like the superhero comparisons it actually does fit really well. Solid review and glad you caught it, Bubba. It’s a great flick.

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