David Cronenberg’s critically-acclaimed and Oscar-nominated crime film A History of Violence is lurid, suspenseful, and deserving of all its praise. Spectacular acting, relentless violence, and a riveting story make this one of the finest films in the last decade. So why is it this week’s victim of re-imagining? Because there’s one element that keeps it from being one of the greatest crime movies ever made: an unneeded sublot. Let’s load up.
The Story in a Nutshell (spoilers!)
Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) owns a small town diner. After he kills two would-be thieves in self-defense, he garners media attention and praise from his family and friends. He’s then visited by Fogarty (Ed Harris) a ruthless gangster who accuses Tom of being someone named “Joey”, a former criminal. Tom claims his innocence but after he kills Fogarty in front of his family, he’s forced to reveal his dark past. Soon after he’s summoned to see his old brother, Richie (William Hurt), a high-ranking member of the mob. Tom begs for peace but is forced to kill his brother and all his henchmen. Tom returns home to face his family’s judgment for his past life.
Tom’s struggle is not with the gangsters, but with himself. To be the family man he claims to be, he has to not only rid himself of his past but also convince his loved ones that he isn’t a monster. It’s a cruel Catch-22; he has to use violence to prove he’s not a violent man.
The movie’s weakest link is Tom’s son, Jack. His subplot of dealing with a school bully with violence is a fascinating comparison that leads to a father-son conflict. However Jack constantly whines and argues with Tom even after they save each other from gangsters. Plus it makes Tom look too much like a hypocrite when he criticizes his son for standing up for himself. Jack’s entire subplot takes focus away from Tom’s story and turns a portion of the movie into a “coming of age” story reminiscent of The Karate Kid. We’re not here to see Jack, we’re here to see Tom.
Cut Jack completely from the movie and focus on Tom’s relationship with his pre-teen daughter Sarah. In the movie Tom is first introduced coddling Sarah after she has a nightmare. He tells her there are no such things as monsters. This should be Tom’s greatest struggle: trying to convince his daughter there are no monsters, especially that he isn’t one himself. Instead of arguing with his teenage son about morals, he should be protecting the one thing that proves he isn’t a monster: his innocent daughter.
The scene in which Fogarty and his henchmen show up at Tom’s house would be much more dramatic if they held Sarah hostage instead of Jack. It would mean that Tom’s one and only offspring, the only good thing he’s ever made in his life, is in danger and exposed to Tom’s true self. After the daughter witnesses Tom’s violent nature, Tom’s wife Edie (Maria Bello), instead of Jack, would be forced to kill Fogarty, which tarnishes her innocence as well.
The story would continue with Tom losing all trust with his wife and daughter. He would then face and kill Richie and have the same metaphorical cleansing of his soul when he bathes in the lake behind Richie’s house. When he finally returns home, we would still have the scene where Tom sits at the silent dinner table and Sarah brings Tom his dinner plate without a word. It shows that the very thing that proved Tom could be good has now forgiven and accepted him.
This version increases the suspense because it cuts the unneeded high school subplot and keeps all the focus on Tom’s journey to redemption. He’s a monster trying to be human and his judgment comes from his loving wife and his only offspring: an innocent daughter. He sucks them into his dark world and has to bring them back out by cleansing himself. The great struggle is that he has to prove to his wife and daughter that there are no such things as monsters, meanwhile he’s forced to behave like one.
Thank you all for reading and I look forward to re-imagining another movie with you next week.