The suburbs are not what they seem.
After a series of flops, David Cronenberg was unsure what to make next. The master of distaste and discomfort was unsure what story would draw him next. And then he read a script based on a graphic novel called A History of Violence. It was the ultimate perversion of the American dream, a "truth below the surface" story of a small town dealing with an unthinkable danger that's entered their lives.
It's also the story of the one man who knows he can stop it, but if he does, everything will change. His wife, his kids, his friends, no one will ever think of him the same way.
In a new article for Living Life Fearless, Stephen Silver writes about the movie, "Overall, A History of Violence is the rare movie to take violence, and its consequences, seriously, while not being in any way smug or lecturing about it. It’s also one of cinema’s more intriguing portrayals of a marriage. All of that made it once of the best movies of the century’s first decade."
Let's dig deep into this bounceback for Cronenberg and celebrate its 15th anniversary.
Cronenberg Takes on America: A History of Violence 15 Years Later
Cronenberg was coming off 1999’s sci-fi film Existenz and 2002’s Ralph Fiennes strange movie, Spider, when he signed onto A History of Violence. The movie appeared at the Cannes Film Festival, where it contended for the prestigious Palme d’Or, and went on to be a moderate hit, doubling its budget at the box office. Critics loved it, with Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers calling it a film with “explosive power and subversive wit” made by a “world-class director at the top of his startlingly creative form.”
A History of Violence was nominated for two Oscars, Hurt for Best Supporting Actor and Josh Olson for Best Adapted screenplay. Hurt lost to George Clooney, for Syriana, while screenwriter Olson lost to Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, who wrote Brokeback Mountain.
When it came to adapting the film, Olson said:
"With History, I took John Wagner’s premise, title, and—god help me for using this phrase—'inciting incident,' and then leapt off and told my own story. The graphic novel was packed with story, it just wasn’t a story I wanted to tell. It’s a solid, smart, and fun action thriller, but I was a lot more interested in getting into questions of identity. In the book, there’s never a moment’s doubt that the main character is the man the mob guys think he is. I felt like that was a missed opportunity. I thought it was a great chance to play with a classic 'wrong man' scenario in which the wrong man is actually the right man. And that led me to start thinking about identity, and what it is that constitutes your 'self.' Is Tom the guy they all say he is? Or is he the guy he’s made himself into? The freedom to stray from the material doesn’t necessarily come from the material, but from your own response to it. It also has something to do with the studio’s needs, as well. If you’re doing Harry Potter, there’s a billion fans that the studio’s trying to serve. If you fuck around with the fundamentals of the stories or the characters, you’re gonna be out of a job. But with something like History, we were talking about a 10-year-old graphic novel that had a very small print run. There wasn’t a market-driven imperative to be faithful to the material, and it wasn’t the enormous audience that compelled the studio to purchase the book. I found out when they hired me off my pitch that they’d had the same concerns with the book that I did, and had just been waiting for someone to come in and show them how to take it into a completely different direction. In the end, it’s gotta be a story you want to tell. I’ve written a lot of originals, but in the end, History was one of the most personal scripts I’ve ever written."
The film centers on the Stall family, who live in a small town in Indiana. Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) runs the local diner with his wife Edie (Maria Bello), and his son and daughter. One night, robbers attack the diner, and Tom kills them both, giving him some media attention as a hero who saved lives. He appears on camera and soon after, Tom gets a visit from a gangster (Ed Harris), who claims that Tom is in fact a long-missing former hitman from Philadelphia.
Tom denies this, but behind the scenes we begin to suspect there's more to him than meets the eye. Eventually, Tom ends up back in Philly, where he has a final showdown with his brother Richie (Hurt) where he kills everyone that knows his name.
The film ends with him back in Indiana. His secret is safe in this town, but the people who thought they knew him have changed their opinions.
Cronenberg was drawn to these ambiguous themes, saying, "The iconic American mythology was very interesting to me. I haven’t set a movie in America since The Dead Zone. It’s not like I have a message to the world. When it came to the depiction of violence, it was where did the characters learn their violence? And what was violence to those characters, but my idea of what I think violence should be. Violence is innate in humans; we are that strange creature that can form abstract concepts, so we can conceive of non-violence. There are people who think that a world full of peace would be boring and would lead to a loss of creativity. That’s an interesting, perverse argument that might some truth in it."
So what was the movie all about?
Was the title about Tom Stall, or was it really a reflection of America, a country found on inescapable violence?
Both are correct. Americans are living in a country founded on violence, not just from the wars for liberation, but the systematic killing of Native Americans, colonization, slavery, and other forms of oppression. As we've seen, you can try to live in peace now, but until you deal with your past it will always find you.
What do you think of the film, any memorable moments or quotes that have stuck with you over the last 15 years?
I'll always remember the energy and realism within the action scenes. Everything was so brutal and felt so sloppy, like people fighting for their lives. I also thought the marriage between Tom and Edie was something we haven't really seen on screen. The couple felt fleshed out, visceral, and in love... until the walls came crashing down.
Let me know your opinions in the comments.