A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this movie is not for kids. It features brutal, deft violence (based on a graphic novel, the film's title is indicative of its focus). It opens with a scene showing dead, bloody bodies (after the murders take place), then shows frequent violent acts, including bone-cracking martial arts, hand-to-hand fighting (one character has his nose pushed through his skull), shooting, knifing, and strangling. It also includes fairly explicit sexual material (including passionate kissing, a cunnilingus scene, and a frankly rough intercourse scene on a stairway). Characters curse frequently, smoke, drink, and do drugs.
What's the story?
In A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) runs a popular diner in sleepy-town Millbrook, Indiana, loves his wife Edie (Maria Bello) and their two kids, six-year-old Sarah (Heidi Hayes) and adolescent Jack (Ashton Holmes). The collapse of Tom and Edie's domestic serenity begins when two killers swagger into the diner at closing time one evening, demanding coffee and looking for trouble. When it appears certain they mean to murder an exceptionally helpless-looking victim, Tom reveals extraordinary fighting skills, killing both assailants. This attracts tabloidy media attention and within hours, a visit from Irish mobster Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris), who insists Tom is "Joey," a thug from back in the day in Philadelphia who, no small thing, left Carl blind in one eye and badly scarred. While Tom works to resolve his own identity, his son Jack is only beginning to understand his own. Finding that his own past might be a collection of lies, the boy is also faced with daily and increased bullying at school. He finally fights back, revealing his own frightening capacity for violence.
Is it any good?
Smart and compelling, A History of Violence is not for kids. David Cronenberg's film -- based on John Wagner and Vince Locke's graphic novel -- moves with a deliberate, sometimes difficult slowness, featuring sets and performances as such, not quite real, more emblems than lived-in experiences. Each moment seems equally strange, fragile and vaguely artificial. History soon breaks open into a meditation not only on sensationalism and violence, but also, and more emphatically, on identity and masculinity, as these notions are entangled in U.S. self-puffing mythology. The plot problem has to do with Tom's re-identification: is he lying when he denies being Joey? Is Carl mistaken? And how else to explain Tom's killer skills?
The movie examines the slippage between myth and realism. While it's easy to be thrilled by the hard-hitting and frequently explosive action (fantastic action-movie action), the film also asks you to step back and contemplate the ideals, costs, and bodies in play. Tom's mutation into a killer is surely startling. And Edie's struggle to believe him and also to protect her children is surely poignant (Bello is stunning). But the more crucial point has to do with what you want to see: a revenge picture, a familial resolution, a heroic triumph, a just punishment, or maybe some hysterical combination of all. If A History of Violence is, to some extent, a history of U.S. excesses and self-images, it is also a critique of unself-conscious consumption of same
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the way violence destroys families in the film. Not only does Tom's current family come to distrust him once he kills the men in the diner and is identified as a former gangster, but also, his relationship with his brother, premised on violent macho codes, can only end badly. How does the movie suggest that violence is "hereditary"? How is also not so much "genetic" (as Jack's transformation when he stands up to the bullies seems as metaphorical as it is literal), but more culturally conditioned? How does the movie critique media (movies, tv news) as they celebrate violence as a means to masculine identity?
- In theaters: September 23, 2005
- On DVD or streaming: March 14, 2006
- Cast: Maria Bello, Viggo Mortensen, William Hurt
- Directors: David Cronenberg, Douglas Aarniokoski
- Studio: New Line
- Genre: Drama
- Run time: 96 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: strong brutal violence, graphic sexuality, nudity, language and some drug use
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