Never one to keep things simple, director David Cronenberg has made a movie in which even the title contains more than one meaning. A History of Violence refers not just to the mystery surrounding the film's protagonist, it also taps right into the very essence of what often makes America tick. A Canadian filmmaker, Cronenberg here resembles nothing so much as one of his fellow countrymen glimpsed in Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine, gazing at our land across the lakes and wondering why we've always been so obsessed with carnage.
Based on a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke, A History of Violence, on the surface, looks like your generic Hollywood shoot-'em-up: Cast The Rock in the leading role, and the film might not appear all that different from mindless vigilante flicks like Walking Tall. But there's more here than meets the eye: In much the same manner that David Lynch deconstructed the myth of the squeaky-clean small Southern town in Blue Velvet, Cronenberg now takes a hatchet to the façade of bland Midwestern homeliness.
The movie establishes the proper tone of unease from the start, as two men check out of their motel in the grisliest way imaginable. From here, we jump over a few cities to the home of Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), a hard-working café owner and family man blessed with a devoted wife named Edie (Maria Bello) and two children. Tom's peaceful existence disappears the night a pair of strangers bust into his diner with the intention of slaughtering everybody in sight. Springing into action, Tom kills the intruders, which in turn leads to his national status as a hero.
Unfortunately for Tom, the widespread exposure brings more strangers to town -- specifically, gruff mobster Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) and his two flunkies. Fogarty seems to believe that Tom Stall is actually Joey Cusack, the homicidal brother of an influential Philadelphia kingpin (William Hurt) as well as the guy responsible for Fogarty's mangled face. Tom insists he's never been anybody but Tom -- heck, he's never even been to Philadelphia -- but Fogarty seems so unshakable in his belief that even Edie starts to form doubts about her husband.
I won't reveal whether this is anything more than a case of mistaken identity, but with this plot thrust, Cronenberg and scripter Josh Olson create a dizzying examination of America's love-hate affair with brutality. Edie adores her husband from the start, but she's clearly even more aroused once he emerges as a macho hero. The film then takes it one step further: A violent sex scene late in the game (a marked contrast to a playful tryst earlier in the movie) suggests that even sadistic murder -- as opposed to the acceptable killing in self-defense -- might subconsciously prove to be a turn-on even to the most virtuous among us (it's no coincidence that Edie makes her living as a lawyer).
Yet Cronenberg isn't just creating a pacifist screed with this film. Tom's teenage son Jack (Ashton Holmes) finds himself constantly tormented at school by a bully, and it's only after his dad's take-charge stand at the diner that Jack finds the strength to fight back. We cheer the boy's newfound resolve, yet also feel guilty about our shared catharsis upon learning that Jack beat the other kid so brutally that he ended up in the hospital, accompanied by parents ready to sue the Stall family.
Viggo Mortensen, formerly a wretched actor who has matured in leaps and bounds these last few years, was a wise choice for the lead -- it's impossible to read anything on his passive face, thus making it hard to gauge whether or not he's telling the truth about his past. Maria Bello also shines as the wife who's forced to confront some unpleasant truths about both her spouse and herself. As for old pros Ed Harris and William Hurt, they offer an interesting contrast in villainy. The low-key Harris brings genuine menace to his role, making Fogarty the sort of man who'd instantly kill you over a penny debt. The hammy Hurt, on the other hand, plays Richie Cusack as a cheerful flake, the kind of guy who'd pretend to forgive you over a penny debt and then have his bodyguard shoot you in the back as you walked away. Truth be told, I wouldn't care to meet either of them in that proverbial dark alley.