From 2003 up until 2007, I was lucky enough to have “movie reviewer” as my job description. As such, I’ve built up a *lot* of reviews for just about every movie that came out during those years, as well as reviews of classic movies.
So, I give you my very first regular feature: The Barenaked Archives. These are reviews that I did for SIN or Hollywood Elsewhere (or both). Sadly, SIN and my column on HE are both gone, so this is now the only place online you can see these old columns.
A History of Violence
Warning: some spoilers ahead. If you don’t want to know that much going into the movie, I suggest you not read beyond the synopsis paragraph.
A History of Violence is an excellent, excellent movie. Make no mistake about that. It is well-written, well-acted, well-directed, well-scored, well-shot, just well made in every way imaginable.
However, it is also disturbing. Maybe not deeply disturbing, but enough so that I walked out of the theater with some slight nausea and more than a few questions on my mind. The only other time a movie has made me nauseated because of violence was Sin City, and even then it was in black and white. It was based on a comic book, for heaven’s sake, and it had that same over-the-top comic quality.
This, on the other hand, was in living color. And I don’t know what disturbed me more: the fact that it got so unapologetically graphic, or the fact that so many people laughed.
Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is a simple man living a simple life with his wife Edie (Maria Bello) and their kids Jack and Sarah. That changes one night when two men try to rob Tom’s diner and he doesn’t just thwart the thieves; he kills them. Not long after, a scarred Philly gangster (Ed Harris) shows up at the diner convinced that Tom is the man who gave him the scar. And he’s not going away till he gets what he came for…Tom.
As I said, fundamentally this movie is excellent. Viggo Mortensen is a terrific actor, and he sinks his teeth into a role that’s about as far as one could get from Aragorn. He’s got a personality like a light switch: one minute he’s a concerned father and husband, a respectable pillar of their small community; the next he’s an efficiently brutal killer. It’s like a very, very warped version of a superhero and his secret identity. Maria Bello also does an admirable job as Tom’s wife Edie, a woman who has her entire world shattered.
The violence in this movie gives new meaning to the term “graphic.” Not gratuitous, mind you. Believe it or not, it’s necessary to the story. It’s not a constant assault, like Sin City was. The violence here comes in short bursts, harsh and effective and very, very disturbing in its animalistic intensity.
They take care to show us the stomach-churning details that most other movies omit: what a bullet fired at close range does to a man’s head, and the residue that a shotgun blast fired through another person will leave on your shirt. These shots garnered gasps of shock and horror from the audience, but that didn’t stop them from cheering the next time Tom beat the living snot out of somebody. It makes you wonder a bit about an audience where people will walk out after a fairly graphic sex scene about 20 minutes in, but eagerly cheer on a person committing murder.
We’re forced to sympathize with Tom early on, but by the end of the film one just can’t help but wonder which murderous gangster is more deserving of that sympathy. The ending isn’t necessarily a happy one, nor is it necessarily poetic justice. In fact, it begs the question: what ending does Tom deserve? This movie allows its viewers to make up their own minds about that one.
A History of Violence isn’t an easy movie to watch, nor should it be. However, it is an exceptional one, and those who dare to see it will find themselves with far more to think about by the time the credits roll.