Film review: A History of Violence

I'm glad I didn't know it was David Cronenberg who'd directed this film before I went to see it.

It was a spur of the moment decision. It suddenly struck me that I didn't fancy sitting in a pub that evening, so I suggested going to the cinema.

My girlfriend told me she'd heard good things about A History of Violence, and so we headed off, completely unaware that the film would become so ridiculous that I would do something I've only ever done once before: walk out.

Not because it was too violent. Not because it was too bleak. Not because it was too amateurish. Just because it was sheer unadulterated rubbish. As soon as I realised I had absolutely no interest in what happened next, suddenly everything that didn't include watching this nonsense was preferable.

I can honestly say I will go to my grave never once wondering what happened at the end of this film.

And yet when I went online the day after to see what everyone else had made of this cliche-ridden snooze of a film, I was amazed at the ratings. I was also amazed it was a Cronenberg film.

In fact, because it *was* a Cronenberg film I actually started to wonder whether I'd got it wrong. Maybe it was an interesting film after all. But it's not. It is terrible. And the fact it is Cronenberg is, to my mind, the only reason anyone has given A History of Violence more than two stars out of five.

As if to prove this point, the usually reliable Empire gave the film four stars and yet spent its whole review discussing the director and not the film. The logic was that this film is not as bad as Cronenberg's other recent films. We gave a worse one three stars, so this must merit four. It doesn't. And comparative director marking is a dangerous road.

It also looks good on paper. Viggo Mortensen, Ed Harris are two good actors. The script, I find out, comes from a blood-soaked novel – and probably one worth reading.

Mild-mannered Tom Stall runs a small-town restaurant that is held up by two road-tripping psychos who Tom manages to kill with SAS-style precision. He becomes a media celebrity and this attracts the attention of mobsters from Philadephia who thinks he is a contract killer gone to ground in a witness protection programme.

But even before the mobsters turn up at the little diner, you got the sense that this was a film going down the toilet. No one has ever tried to combine the coolness of Pulp Fiction's violence with the handheld horror of Texas Chainsaw Massacre with such tedious results.

You already knew when the blokes came out of the motel right at the beginning of the film that they were heartless killers, even though the film did its best to keep you in suspense.

You already knew that they would turn up at Tom Stall's diner as soon as Tom popped up on screen a few minutes later. You already knew he would kill them. And as soon as Tom's wimpy but clever son found he was having trouble with the school bully, you already knew he would beat him up in the High School corridor, most likely with a crowd of jeering teenagers to create the final bully denouement.

You knew all this before any of it was even hinted at because the film was absolutely dripping with movie cliches. It felt like the first film by a film school graduate who had taken a fellow student's script.

Before the main mobster, played by Ed Harris, even appeared on screen, my girlfriend turned to me and said “okay, black suit and sunglasses with a scar on his face and a glass eye”. And lo and behold, that's exactly what we got.

The one area that could have made the film work turned out to be more of the same. You imagined that the initial psychoes would last the whole film. But they're wiped out early on. You think then that the gangsters would stick to the end. But no, they're off as well. Which left the last third of the film where, most likely, another set of even worse baddies turned up. But I'd walked out by this time, so I'll never know.

By trying to pack in a large number of the usual end-of-film showdowns, presumably the idea was that the film would be more exciting, a rollercoaster that kept you guessing. The effect it had on me, however, was the opposite.

Why was I bothering to watch this film? It had nothing to say. It had nothing original. It was a jigsaw of extended trailers for old movies.

We were supposed to be wondering whether Tom really was a dangerous assassin in an early, secret life. And whether his wife knew. But the clever twists that films are normally so good at were so poorly handled that Tom and his wife just ended up with split personalities.

It's hard to credit that such an experienced director as Cronenberg could create such a monstrous mess of a film. But then if you're in a cinema and someone lets out a foul-smelling fart, why worry about who created it? Just grab your nose with your fingers and make your way outside.

1/5 stars