You can feel this desire straining to find voice in the film. It bubbles, boils, like a burning piece of film that has been caught in the gate of a projector after an accident. Trapped, the film itself twists and stretches along the rollers, trying to alter its form, trying to turn itself into something intelligent, to craft itself into something that reaches beyond the limitations of (I assume) the source material, but this never happens. The film twists, turns hard, and the light never burns through. It never makes it out. It sits there, pushing, suffocated, as the story of Tom Stall, played by Viggo Mortensen, moves along with a mundane triviality, punctuated by acts of extreme violence.
The plot of the film is b-grade: Stall, living in a quiet town with his wife and two kids, and operating a diner, is robbed one night, where he suddenly explodes into action, killing both intruders. The two bored killers that he takes out are actually the most interesting aspect of the whole film, so it's a disappointment that we didn't get more of them. Anyhow, afterward, when his face has appeared throughout TV land, a trio of gangsters show up, believing him to be the gangster Joey, who, years earlier, damaged a gangster boss's eye out with a piece of barbwire as he ripped up his place. This is the point at which the film starts straining against its source material. It desperately wants to do something with this, wants to subvert the cliche of a gangster in hiding, and a threat to his family, but sadly, it never does. Stall, it turns out, is Joey, and has been living in hiding for years, having given up his violent, crazy life for the really quite boring life of a married man with two kids in rural USA.
And that's kind of it.
I mean, it's not. There's the usual shit: the wife is horrified, she realises that the name Stall might have a secondary meaning, and she gets into some rough sex, but that's never explored. The son has trouble with his new killer father. He turns violent himself, but this is not explored, either. The young daughter has to pretty much hang round and look innocent while gangsters threaten her. That kind of stuff happens. You've seen it all before. I think Steven Seagal has made about fifty films like this. If not Seagel, then some other limited action hero in the role of a Man With A Secret Past That Comes Back To Haunt Him.
Cronenberg appears to be wanting to say something about violence, but I was never quite sure what that was. Was it a genetic trait? That there is violence everywhere? Or maybe it was just me who wanted something else, who couldn't quite believe that I had paid twelve bucks to sit and watch a film of b-grade, direct to video (or is it DVD) storyline trash that Cronenberg was attempting to disguise as something intelligent or, at the very least, vaguely interesting. A lot of people seem to think it's a good film, an intelligent film, but then a lot of people bought Dan Brown's novel, and a lot of people think that the Spiderman films are interesting--in fact, it's a long list in how People Are Wrong, and I guess this is one of those instances, really.
It's a shame. A History of Violence had a lot of potential.