October 17, 2005

A History of Violence

A History of Violence spends the first half of its running time introducing us to Tom Stall, and the second half introducing us to Joey Cusack. Like the two men, the two halves of the film are indivisible. Like the two men, the whole is disturbingly less than the sum of its parts.
The first half of the movie establishes itself within the life of Tom Stall, owner and operator of a small diner in the rural town of Millbrook, Indiana. The early scenes, concerning themselves as they do with the minutia of small town life, seem to play out in almost real time. I liked that. I liked even more than the concerns of these people were the concerns of everyone; mundane things like buying a new pair of shoes. Still, there is something wrong — something disturbingly off just under the surface. Stall is an involved father and husband, a pillar of the community. But he is bland, almost calculatedly so. The sex scene was one of the most disturbing scenes in the movie. He brings as much energy and spark to the table as he would to butter a slice of bread. When something happens, we see the concept of it drift over Stall, taking route ever so slowly. Behind his eyes there is nothing; an emptiness where the human soul should be.
But then violence ensues. Two men with a corrupt agenda — what or for who is never explained; the movie is content to just have its McGuffin without probing too thoroughly — threaten the wrong rural diner. In the flash on an instant they are dead in a most barbaric way, the flash of violence poring out of Stall's tall worn frame. The town and the media declare him a hero. In his own bland quiet way, he's not so sure. New visitors to the diner hold the key to what makes him so good at killing people. The persona of Tom stall begins to chip and crack. The visage of Joey Cusack is slowly unveiled in fits and starts of true ugliness, an effect that begins stir up the truth under the empty facade of Tom Stall's world.
When Joey Cusack takes front and centre stage, he is hardly more engaging than Stall. True, the blandness is gone. It's difficult to be a bland one-man killing machine. But there's that same stillness, that same reluctance that showcases that key parts of being human have utterly and completely been driven out of this man. We hear stories of the artful slaughter that young Joey would unleash. We see moments of primitive savagery. These are what makes him an effective killer, and what draws Mrs. Stall into a moment of sexual release when she should be fleeing from this betrayer.
Above all else, though, Joey wants to preserve as much of Tom Stall as he can. He proves in several instances that he is willing to kill gruesomely and indiscriminately to do so. I kept waiting for some greater truth, some greater epiphany. Some sign that our protagonist, if you can call him that, had changed or grown by the experience. Such a scene never came. He returns to the Stall home, presumably having pieced back together Tom or an approximation of him, and takes his seat at the dinner table. The other members of the family resume their facade roughly where they left off, a scene of intended tragedy and darkness. It is an appropriate enough ending, but it lacks any true struggle from which to be earned. Much like the endings of About Schmidt and Mystic River, I found myself isolated and uninvolved. I find it impossible to sympathize with characters who understand their problem and refuse to make any effort to resolve it.
A History of Violence is a beautifully-shot, well-acted, expertly-structured piece of cinema. But like Tom Stall, it fails to satisfy, because it only takes one glimpse at its soul to realize there's nothing there. There are twinges of humanity, but they were quelled by in a manner that betrays the characters to forward a theme. It's an admirable achievement in many ways but lacks the substance necessary to be anything better. ()


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