Violence is the dominant cuisine of world cinema, so any movie that seems to critique it while serving up a scrum-dilly-icious platter of blood and shattered cartilage is bound to get some critics hollering, “Masterpiece!” That’s what you might be hearing about David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (New Line)—and it is an absolutely sensational piece of filmmaking. It’s staged and shot and acted and scored like nothing else this year, and it has images that will lodge themselves in your brain, rather like an ice pick. I have nothing bad to say about it—except that it shouldn’t for a second be taken too seriously.
The movie belongs to a hallowed but problematic genre: guilty pulp. Here, you have your cake but choke on it, too. The modern apex is the vigilante Western Unforgiven, in which a return to bloodshed costs the hero his soul—but the higher price (for him and at the box office) would have been leaving his buddy unavenged. A closer comparison is the tony The Road to Perdition, based on a graphic novel (the comic book’s highbrow cousin): a Charles Bronson picture in Oscar-bait clothes, complete with a handy anti-violence message that’s delivered with perfect timing, after the bad guys have been blown away.
Another graphic-novel adaptation (by Josh Olson, from a work by John Wagner and Vince Locke), A History of Violence is better by miles than that pretentious perdition-bricked Road, but it’s steeped in the same kind of fatalism. It opens with a single, lengthy take: The camera travels along the flat exterior of a cheap motel, in front of which two low-life homicidal scumbags make banal small talk before killing an entire family, including a little girl. This happens off-screen, thank God, but nothing that follows does. When the child is shot, there’s a cut from the gun blast to another little girl as she wakes from a nightmare, screaming. Her daddy, Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), tells her it’s OK, there are no monsters—when, of course, we know there are.
The setting is a picture-perfect Midwest town, and Tom and his pretty ex-cheerleader, now-lawyer wife, Edie (Maria Bello), have a picture-perfect homestead. Tom is picture-perfect, too, with his sky-blue eyes and rangy diffidence. He owns a luncheonette on the main street (Main Street?) and serves up pie and coffee while chatting about the weather, and he would seem to be the very image of Norman Rockwell wholesomeness if not for those killers from the opening sequence passing through town in need of fast cash and—
Well, I’m not going to spoil anything, no sir. But it’s fair to say A History of Violence revolves around a momentous secret. Either Tom is not what he appears to be or a bad case of mistaken identity is going to force him to become something other than what he is. By and by, three more bad men—dark-suited gangsters—saunter into the luncheonette. Their leader, Fogarty (Ed Harris), has a mottled, milky, dead eye, which nonetheless fastens on Tom. Fogarty repeatedly calls him “Joey,” as in “Good coffee, Joey,” to which Tom responds with polite incomprehension.
It’s a fascinating exchange, pitting Mortenson’s tense easiness against Harris’ easy tension. Whether he’s Joey or not, the heroic act of violence that puts Tom in the public eye will beget violence and more violence. And Cronenberg gives it a super-kinetic charge, along with the explosive compression of great comic book (sorry, graphic novel) frames. The sudden bloody discharges are lightning-fast and deliciously satisfying—orgasmic, even. But they also leave you sickened, because Cronenberg cuts briefly—in an extra frame, like a comic book’s (sorry, graphic novel’s)—to men with heads shattered and faces beaten, literally, to bloody pulps.
But here’s the thing: Those extra frames don’t sicken us morally. Even though A History of Violence is suffused with loss—it’s in every bar of Howard Shore’s gorgeous, elegiac score, his plangent Americana darkened with Bartok-like “night-music” dissonances—the right people are always on the right end of the (righteous) violence. There’s never a second in which the hero’s killings suggest that he has truly lost his soul. And he’s so virtuosic in the way he delivers death that the subsequent messes seem like moral ass-savings—like Cronenberg saying, “This is more than a Steven Seagal movie.” It’s the same with the picture’s parallel subplot, in which Tom’s shrinking, slightly effeminate son (Ashton Holmes, in an impressive debut that evokes Bruce Davison’s Willard) stands up to a bully with the improbable technique of a practiced fighter. To paraphrase Clint, “An adolescent who wants to be a man’s gotta do what an adolescent who wants to be a man’s gotta do.”
A History of Violence does have dissonances beyond Shore’s music. The Midwest landscape, as photographed by Peter Suschitzky, is a stablizing force, yet it isn’t pastoral or idealized. It’s also a place in which to hide. When a police chief warns the gangsters that the town “protects its own,” he’s both reassuring and unnerving. After all, it might protect them from people like us as well.
Two remarkable sex scenes add even more wrinkles. The first is a piece of nostalgic play-acting, for which Edie dons her cheerleader outfit and Tom lovingly services her. The second is its opposite, a rape that is scarily unresolved—a thrill that remains a violation. In these and other scenes, Bello gives the film an emotional core, and Mortensen’s transitions are so subtle that you almost buy his barely credible character. (If an ex-gangster, he is too corn-fed; if a corn-fed Midwesterner, his instincts are too Seagal-like.) Harris and, later, William Hurt give bravura performances—laugh-out-loud over-the-top but with shockingly vicious underbellies.
That’s how I think of A History of Violence—as laughably over-the-top and shockingly vicious. But what strikes some critics as complexity feels to me like shame—the shame of Cronenberg, an uncompromising director whose bloodshed has always been genuinely horrifying. As a gun for hire, he will surely have his biggest hit since The Fly by delivering simpleminded pulp violence—and, like his hero, delivering it a little too triumphantly…