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I knew nothing about A History of Violence before I sat down to watch it, absolutely nothing except that it starred Viggo Mortensen, and that that was enough to make me want to see it. I had even managed to avoid hearing that this was a David Cronenberg film, knowledge that certainly would have colored my expectations about it, as would have the knowledge, which I did not have until just before the movie began, that this was based on a graphic novel.
Of course, I did not achieve this dramatic ignorance by leading a hermit's life, living in a cave, and avoiding all media - I was lucky enough to see the film a few weeks before it opened, before the barrage of TV ads and the like that reveal things that, had I known they were coming, would have drastically altered my experience of the film. It may be the single thing I love best about what I do, the opportunity to see films before my anticipation of them can be molded by marketing - even sometimes see films with absolutely no preconceptions whatsoever. Sometimes it doesn't matter if you know what's coming, and sometimes it's fun to get caught up in the hype, but sometimes, ignorance really is bliss.
Not that foreknowledge would have diminished A History of Violence for me, just made the experience of it different, and I don't mean to suggest that there's no point in seeing the film if you have been exposed to the marketing (which is sure to ramp up as the movie awards season begins in earnest, because this is without question one of the very best films of the year, and it will be vying for all sorts of well-deserved honors). See this movie - I promise it won't be like any other movie you've ever seen, and may well change the way you look at violence in the movies.
And it's not like you're not gonna know, with a kind of sinking horror gnawing at the pit of your stomach, from the opening moments of Violence, that something very, very bad will be in the offing. Because, in the calculus of The Movies, families that start out happy cannot stay that way. And the Stalls are ridiculously, absurdly, luminously happy: Tom (Mortensen: Hidalgo, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King) runs the main-street diner in their small Indiana town; Edie (Maria Bello: Assault on Precinct 13, Silver City) is the only lawyer in the world who isn't a completely stressed-out nutball; they have two amazing kids and a hot, healthy sex life. I mean: Wow. There's an incendiary moment early on the film that is so sexy - and also really sweet - that it is not only such a pinnacle of familial perfection that it clearly cannot be allowed to stand, but it's also indicative of how dedicated Mortensen and Bello are to these characters, to each other as actors (and the heat of their chemistry together has got to be seen to be believed), and to pushing envelopes of the depiction of married life onscreen. I suspect, too, that Cronenberg let this scene go as far as it does as a kind of litmus test: Will mainstream American audiences be more upset over really steamy marital lovemaking than they will over the horrific violence later in the film?
Cronenberg and screenwriter Josh Olson - working from the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke - set a nightmare horror on a collision course with the Stalls, a chilling vision of depravity and death that will leave you twisted up in grim anticipation: you're muttering, "Oh no, oh no," over and over as it approaches. And then when it hits, it's so shockingly not when you were expecting that from that moment on, your entire movie world is rocked - all bets are off, all the rules are thrown out the window, and you have nothing to cling to, no movie safety net. You can't sit there comfortable in the knowledge that everything will turn out a certain way because this is the movies and things always turn out a certain way. You don't know whom to believe, what to trust... and that is an exhilarating feeling, to be walking an emotional tightrope along with the characters on the screen.
A lot of that delicious uncertainty comes courtesy of Mortensen: his cleverness, these last ten years or so he's been showing up on our screens, not to let himself get pigeonholed or stereotyped pays off in a big way here - there's a skittery kind of unease under Tom's bland, all-American everyman exterior that could be read in several ways, all of them directly contradictory to the others. You simply cannot predict what Tom will turn out to be because, thank the movie gods, there is no "Viggo Mortensen" screen persona: he's too vastly different every time he appears on film.
But part of the luscious, merciless goodness that is A History of Violence is that it is a successful paradox - it is almost a parody of the gleeful Hollywood sandbox depiction of violence at the same time it is a grounded parable about the wages of violence, how allowing oneself to descend into barbarism, even in the defense of home and hearth, invariably comes back to bite you on the ass. This is an extremely violent movie that condemns violence, not in that cartoony movie-movie way that, say, Terminator 2 did, but in a way that feels so profoundly grounded in reality that it almost transcends the screen. The blood and the gore and the massive ragged shotgun wounds, etc, are not glorified, and the criminal life is never romanticized - it is all so blunt and screaming in pain and nasty and raw that you feel the impact, and the characters onscreen do, too, which is perhaps the element that is typically missing from the movies: no one seems stunned by gunshots in the movies. And yet, then there's the finale, which is so over the top - in the same way that the opening setup of the happy happy happy Stall family seemed almost farcical, seemed so calculated for disaster - that it could only happen in a movie...
And of course A History of Violence is only a movie - but it strikes a chord of authenticity, too, achieving a perfect balance between letting us get lost in its people and story and never letting us forget that this is primarily a movie meant to divert us. That, in the end, is the film's real claim to genius.