Modern Mondays: A History of Violence (2005)

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It seems like everywhere I turn someone is talking or writing about the recent Comic Book Convention that is held in San Diego every year. It used to be an event only attended by comic book fans and various industry insiders, but it has exploded into some kind of massive media event attended by anyone and everyone. When did comic books become so acceptable? I suppose it was the onslaught of popular comic book films in recent years that has made the general public and every working film critic take notice. As someone who worked in a comic book shop throughout most of the 1990s for minimum wage, I find this sudden interest in the events at Comic-Con extremely amusing. It’s also great for the business, which has struggled to gain legitimacy for years. Comic books are now making a lot of people a lot of money. And money makes critics and cultural pundits take notice.

One of my favorite comic-to-film adaptations in the last 10 years is David Cronenberg’s 2005 film A History of Violence, which was based on a little known comic collection or “graphic novel” published by DC Comics under their Paradox Press banner. The comic book was written by John Wagner and illustrated by one of my favorite working comic book artists, Vince Locke (Deadworld, American Freak: A Tale of the Un-Men, etc). Although Cronenberg’s film received an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, few people seem aware of the fact that this critically acclaimed film was based on a comic book. And although Wagner’s original story is rather simplistic and only skims the surface of the rich murky depths that Cronenberg was able to mine, I think it makes an interesting companion piece to the film.

Since I’m still running on limited free time I decided to share a few choice quotes from one of my favorite reviews of A History of Violence that was written by one of my favorite authors, the late great J. G. Ballard. Ballard is a brilliant writer and he worked with David Cronenberg on the film adaptation of his own novel Crash (1996). In Ballard’s excellent review of the film he sums up exactly why A History of Violence is such a great film and one of my favorite movies of the last decade. What follows are a few choice excerpts from Ballard’s review.


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“Are we all, without realising it, taking part in a vast witness protection programme? Did we observe, at some time in the distant past, a deeply disturbing event in which we were closely implicated? Were we then assigned new identities, new personalities, fears and dreams so convincing that we have forgotten who we really are?

These questions crowded my head as I watched A History of Violence, a film as brilliant and provocative as anything David Cronenberg has directed. All Cronenberg’s films make us edge back into our seats, gripped by the story unfolding on the screen but aware that something unpleasant is going on in the seats around us.That unpleasantness, needless to say, is ourselves, a damp bundle of passions, needs and neuroses that conceal our secret nature. The disturbing event we witnessed in the past is the experience of being alive, a state of affairs that Cronenberg most definitely does not take at face value.

Existence, in Cronenberg’s eyes, is the ultimate pathological state. He sees us as fragile creatures with only a sketchy idea of who we are, nervous of testing our physical and mental limits. The characters in Cronenberg’s films behave as if they are inhabiting their minds and bodies for the first time at the moment we observe them, fumbling with the controls like drivers in a strange vehicle. Will it rise vertically into the air, invert itself, or suddenly self-destruct?”

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“The title, A History of Violence, is the key to the film, and should be read not as a tale or story of violence, but as it might appear in a social worker’s case notes: “This family has a history of violence.” The family, of course, is the human family, a primate species with an unbelievable appetite for cruelty and violence. If its behaviour in the 20th century is any guide, the human race inhabits a huge sink estate ravaged by unending feuds and civil wars, a no-go area abandoned by the authorities, though no one can remember who they are, or even if they exist.

The film is set in a small town in rural Ohio, a peaceful backwater where the only thing that changes is the single traffic light. Tom Stall, played by Viggo Mortensen, runs a pleasant cafe, and “I’ll have some of that nice cherry pie” sums up the Norman Rockwell ethos. Tom is relaxed and likable, and is happily married to Edie (Maria Bello). They have a six-year-old daughter, Sarah, party-dress sweet and adorable, who we know is going to get it before too long, and a teenage son, Jack, with a droll line in humour. Asked by his bored girlfriend what the town’s future holds for them, he replies: “We grow up, get jobs, get married and become alcoholics.”

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“What is so interesting about the film is the speed with which the wife accepts that her husband, for all his courage, is part of the criminals’ violent world, in spirit, if not in actual fact. A dark pit has opened in the floor of the living room, and she can see the appetite for cruelty and murder that underpins the foundations of her domestic life. Her husband’s loving embraces hide brutal reflexes honed by aeons of archaic violence. This is a nightmare replay of The Desperate Hours, where escaping convicts seize a middle-class family in their sedate suburban home – but with the difference that the family must accept that their previous picture of their docile lives was a complete illusion. Now they know the truth and realise who they really are. Their family has a history of violence.”- J.G. Ballard

If you’d like to read J. G. Ballard’s review of A History of Violence in its entirety you can find it here. The film should be easily available at your local DVD rental shop or online at Netflix and Greencine.

Modern Mondays is an ongoing project here at Cinebeats where I share a few thoughts or lengthy rants and raves about my favorite films produced during the last decade. Films previously mentioned on Modern Mondays include:

The Left Bank (2008)
Love Songs (2007)
Bright Future (2003)
Control (2007)
The Quiet American (2001)

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5 thoughts on “Modern Mondays: A History of Violence (2005)

  1. Brian says:

    Love this film; put it atop my top ten list for 2005 at the time, and stand by that placement. The Ballard review is the best one I’ve read of the film to date. Though it’s worth pointing out that a good deal of what Ballard admires in the film is not really present in the original comic; the latter is an engrossing yarn but it doesn’t really delve into issues of persona construction that are front and center of the film.

    Great screencaps!

  2. Kimberly Lindbergs says:

    It was definitely was one of the best films released in 2005 and I think it’s probably my favorite recent Cronenberg film. I’m glad you like the Ballard review too! As for the differences between the film and comic, I have to agree with you, Brian. I think the original writer (John Wagner) only scratches at the surface of some of the ideas that Cronenberg really delves into with his film.

    I do think the comic is worth a look though. I have mixed feelings about Wagner’s writing in general, but I do love Vincent Locke’s artwork and I think he’s actually an under-appreciated comic book artist. Speaking of Locke, I wish someone would adapt the zombie tale he did with Stuart Kerr (Deadworld) into a film. I’ve heard rumors for years that a Deadworld movie was in the works but nothing has come of it yet. With the current interest in comic book tales, zombies and horror in general I suspect it would have a large audience.

  3. Christianne says:

    The graphic novel is very different from the film, and not nearly as good (I like Vince Locke, too, but I think the writing is pretty dire).

    I’m always amused at the people who claim that this film (and Eastern Promises, too) are departures for Cronenberg; to my mind it seems like this is exactly like his early horror movies. I think it’s a weird kind of remake of Scanners, actually, with the younger brother confronting an older brother who wants to kill him, and with the victor coming out of the conflict with two elements of his persona–the meek and the agressive–fused together. Come to think of it, that’s the plot of Dead Ringers, too. So it’s pretty hard core Cronenberg.

    It’s my favorite Cronenberg of this decade, too.

  4. Kimberly Lindbergs says:

    Taylor – I haven’t seen it. I’m afraid I have an aversion to Tom Hanks. Obviously I’m probably missing out on some worthwhile films.

    Christianne – I think we’re all in agreement that Wagner isn’t a very good writer, but at least his ideas sparked a great screenplay and a terrific film.

    And I’m totally with you in regard to critics and viewers who think Cronenberg has somehow “softened” up. That’s just ridiculous. I really need to see Eastern Promises again but that film, along with History, easily contain some of Cronenberg’s best moments. Unlike many other directors who seem to loose something as they grow older, Cronenberg just continues to become a more interesting filmmaker. I’m eager to see what he does next.

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