David Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence” is a cleverly told “what if?” movie that raises significant questions about trust, redemption and forgiveness.
One of the Canadian director’s more straightforward pictures, it should delight mainstream audiences who prefer their action pictures to have some depth of character, several twists in the plot and a satisfying conclusion.
What if you were a decent man, with a loving wife and two children, running a diner in a small town, and two hoodlums showed up at your place and called you by a different name?
Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) and his lawyer wife, Edie (Maria Bello), are happily raising two pleasant kids in Millbrook, Ind., when their world is rocked by an act of extreme violence.
The surprise is that it’s easygoing Tom who commits the violence. When the two thugs in his diner go to kill a waitress, Tom leaps into action like a natural born killer, disposing of the assailants with merciless efficiency.
He is instantly hailed as an American hero and becomes the subject of national newspaper headlines and television news programs. Just as the furor appears to be dying down, three more hard-looking men in black suits and dark glasses enter Tom’s diner.
Their leader has a fearsome scar that runs across his almost blind left eye to his cheek. The local sheriff later reveals the man to be one Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris), a well-known Philadelphia mobster who has emerged from 15 years in prison.
Fogarty says Tom’s real name is “Joey,” and he just smiles when Tom denies it. Tom is clearly at risk, and as the threat escalates, his family must deal with suspicion and fear until a bloody resolution finally resolves things.
Cronenberg is in fine mischievous form in “History of Violence.” While the narrative is direct, screenwriter Josh Olson seeds it with misdirection and mixes a good amount of very smart humor into his violent story.
The story moves so swiftly that it’s easy to overlook the fact that the media, which are all over Tom’s story at first, never show up again, and leaving fingerprints doesn’t appear to bother anyone.
The film delves into the nature of violence and makes the discomfiting suggestion that it can be a good thing. Cronenberg makes the audience complicit in that by playing some scenes wittily to elicit audience sympathy.
The violence in the film is short, sharp and nasty, the way it almost always is when not highly stylized for the movies. Mortensen is immediately appealing as a small-town nice guy, and he somehow retains an aura of at least reluctance when forced to mete out stunning retribution.
Former “ER” star Bello deals superbly with the many levels of emotion stirred in her character as she must reassess the man she married while fighting to protect her children. Ashton Holmes does fine work as the son, and Heidi Hayes is eerily wise as the young daughter.
Harris makes his hoodlum thoroughly chilling, as does William Hurt, who shows up as wealthy thug who cannot figure out that the reason he is stalled in middle management of organized crime is his lack of intelligence, not the fault of others. They make a memorable pair of bad guys in a film that makes being a good guy sometimes very ambiguous.
A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE
New Line Cinema
Credits: Director: David Cronenberg; Screenwriter: Josh Olson; Producers: Chris Bender & JC Spink; Cinematographer: Peter Suschitzky; Production designer: Carol Spier; Editor: Ronald Sanders; Composer: Howard Shore. Cast: Tom Stall: Viggo Mortensen; Edie Stall: Maria Bello; Richie Cusack: William Hurt; Carl Fogarty: Ed Harris; Jack Stall: Ashton Holmes; Sarah Stall: Heidi Hayes; Leland Jones: Stephen McHattie; Billy Orser: Greg Bryk; Sheriff Sam Carney: Peter MacNeill.
No MPAA rating, running time 96 minutes