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New Line Cinema

Official Site

Director: David Cronenberg

Producers: David Cronenberg, Chris Bender, J.C. Spink

Written by: Josh Olson; from the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke

Cast: Viggo Mortenson, Maria Bello, William Hurt, Ashton Holmes, Stephen McHattie, Peter MacNeill, Ed Harris


Last night’s screening of David Cronenberg’s new film, A History Of Violence, further confirms what I have long suspected of average American filmgoers: They are profoundly turned on by violence, and put off by sex. This was made abundantly clear to me by the audience’s reactions of loud applause for the former, and waves of nervous, tittering laughter for the latter.

Seeing as how this was a free screening, it’s probably a safe bet that most of the audience was unfamiliar with the work of Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg. Never one to shy away from either sex or violence, Cronenberg emerged from the ghetto of low-budget horror films to achieve mainstream success with films such as The Dead Zone and The Fly, before turning his back on genre films to work on difficult projects like adaptations of famed cult novels Naked Lunch and Crash.

With A History Of Violence Cronenberg moves back into the familiar territory of genre work, this time with a film noir that echoes classics like Out Of The Past and The Killers. Yet he hasn’t lost his penchant for shock, or his provocative interests in the nexus of sex and violence.


The set up here is so classic, it’s almost boring. Tom Stall (Mortensen) is a decent, all-American kind of guy who enjoys dishing out coffee to the locals almost as much as he likes giving head to his wife, but he receives some unwanted attention after he is forced to defend himself and his business against a pair of vicious criminals. The past catches up to Tom in the form of an ominous visit from gangster Carl Fogarty (Harris).

It’s interesting to contrast Cronenberg’s approach to film noir, with that of Robert Rodriguez, who earlier this year made the Sin City, which, like A History Of Violence, was adapted from a graphic novel. While they both traffic in the kind of sex and violence that would have been unthinkable during the genre’s height in the ’40s and ’50s, stylistically they couldn’t be more different. With the help of cutting-edge technology, Sin City dazzlingly recreated the Basin City of the comic book, with its assortment of hookers, monsters, and mayhem. Cronenberg attempts to recreate the small-town America of the post-war years, the Norman Rockwell America. And his approach as a director is spare, yet never restrained when it comes to sex and violence.

Like many of the best films of the genre, A History Of Violence has a tragic grace about it. And the ending achieves a haunting grandeur. The supporting cast of Bello, Harris, and Hurt are stellar. Yet there are flaws in Viggo Mortensen’s double act. Some of this is Cronenberg’s fault—overly elaborate action scenes make Mortensen look like Jason Bourne—but the real problem is that he fails to inhabit either identity with much personality. There are some other problems, including a self-conscious subplot involving Tom’s son and a sadistic jock bully. And one can point out the plot is a bit too straightforward, lacking the delicious twists and turns that mark the genre’s best. And yet I must confess to a special affinity for these kinds of films. It’s such a joy to see film noir done right.

—Edward Rholes

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