A History of Violence

Are we defined by how we live our lives now, or by our past sins? Are some acts beyond redemption? How deep do the roots of violence reach? These are just a few of the questions David Cronenberg poses in A History of Violence. Based on an unspectacular graphic novel, Cronenberg has transformed a gripping but simple thriller into something darker and more personal.

Viggo Mortensen stars as salt-of-the-earth Tom Stall, an adored husband, devoted father and owner of a small town café in one of those idyllic communities that only exist in Norman Rockwell paintings. He has two swell kids (newcomer Ashton Holmes and the angelic Heidi Hayes) and a smart, sexy wife (Maria Bello). When a pair of sadistic thugs tries to rob him, Tom reacts with brutal precision, killing them both and saving the lives of his employees and customers.

Overnight, he’s heralded as a hero by the media, and draws the attention of a Philadelphia mobster (Ed Harris), who claims Tom is actually someone else — a member of the “family” who disfigured him 20 years earlier. While Tom insists it’s a case of mistaken identity, everyone around him begins to have doubts.

With more than a nod to Hitchcock and Sam Peckinpah, the film gooses the “wrong man” theme with unexpected jolts of intense violence and candid sexuality. Though it’s meticulously paced and expertly crafted, the straightforward plot may strike some Cronenberg fans as rather conventional for the director. But the film’s carefully rendered subtext sets it apart. Without conceding any of his iconoclastic vision, Cronenberg has turned a genre film with classic Western overtones (complete with shoot-outs and showdowns) into a gripping psychological drama that examines the duality of man and his infatuation with the art of violence.

Unlike most of today’s action movies, where violence is choreographed with elegance, this film treats physical violence — and sex — as sudden, ruthless and clumsy. Here, brutality is universal: a disease of mankind that can be treated, ignored and even contained, but never fully cured.

Cronenberg blurs the line between iconic fantasy and harsh reality, underlining the links between acting, role-playing and denial. Can a person ever escape their true nature? Is identity mutable or constant? The film taps into something primal about the consequences of brute force, encouraging the viewer to reflect on his or her own capacity for violence.

The lead players are uniformly superb. Mortensen is commanding and deeply sympathetic as Tom, a man struggling to hold love, family and penitence as his core values. Bello takes the stereotypical devoted-but-tormented wife and adds sensuality, passion and authenticity. The two have genuine chemistry, and Cronenberg takes advantage, masterfully staging two sex scenes — one gently candid and the other uncomfortably violent.

The supporting cast impresses as well. Harris brings an icy, laid-back menace to his sociopathic mobster. William Hurt surprises in a scenery-chewing role that might easily have gone to Christopher Walken or Dennis Hopper.

A History of Violence is graceful, terrifying and emotionally powerful. Cronenberg displays impeccable restraint and quiet confidence over his material, all while maintaining his sly sense of humor. He keeps things surprising without ever trying to trick us, moving without ever being manipulative. It’s the kind of thoughtful, adult filmmaking that engages both the heart and the mind.

Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].