CANNES, France – Early scenes in “A History of Violence” show a loving family in small-town Indiana. This being a David Cronenberg movie, you suspect their lives are about to get very, very twisted.
The director of “The Fly” and “Videodrome” is a regular at the Cannes Film Festival, having won a special jury prize for “Crash” and presided over the judging. He has never won the top prize, the Palme d’Or, but his new film — which premiered Monday — looks like one of the stronger contenders so far.
The film shows how an unexpected outburst of violence transforms a folksy diner owner (Viggo Mortensen, who played the title character in “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King”) and his family. There’s plenty of blood and gore — which, Cronenberg says, is not gratuitous.
“I think what we did in this movie vis-a-vis violence was ultra-responsible, because it’s a serious discussion of the nature of violence and the impact that it has on society and family and human life and on human bodies as well,” he told reporters.
As the movie opens, Mortensen’s character, Tom Stall, has a storybook life. He has a caring wife (Maria Bello from “The Cooler” and “Autofocus”), a smart teenage son and an adorable little daughter. When the youngest has a nightmare, the whole family crawls into her bed to comfort her.
Things take a turn for the weird when some Philadelphia mobsters charge into Tom’s life, convinced he’s a long-lost associate.
The movie has “the resonance of Westerns, of American Western movies and the mythology involved, a man who takes a gun in his hands to protect his family and his homestead against other men with guns,” Cronenberg said.
One of the mobsters is played by Ed Harris, who saunters into town wearing a dark suit and sunglasses and proceeds to stalk Tom and his family. Tom does everything he can to convince Harris’ character he has the wrong man.
Eventually, Tom is forced to make a trip to Philadelphia to confront the mob leader at the heart of his troubles (William Hurt). Hurt is on screen only about 10 minutes, but it’s a remarkable performance: He’s creepy, larger-than-life and very funny.
Giving too much of the plot away would spoil the movie. But at a press screening, many scenes had the audience laughing and clapping — even the violent sequences.
The uncomfortable mix of humor and violence is meant to make people think.
“I’m not surprised the audience would applaud,” Cronenberg said. “Because I wanted them to be complicit. I wanted them to be involved in it.”
At Cannes, the Canadian director has a history of causing discomfort and controversy.
When he headed the jury in 1999, people were shocked by its choices — such as giving top acting prizes to people who had never acted before.
In 1996, some people booed and walked out of “Crash,” Cronenberg’s twisted movie about lovers who get turned on by car crashes; then it won a special Jury Prize.
Like “Crash,” Cronenberg’s new movie tackles the uncomfortable links between sexuality and violence. At the beginning, Tom’s wife puts on a cheerleader’s uniform to spice up their marriage. By the end, their love life enters darker territory.
“I think there is always a sexual component in violence, and there’s a violent component in sexuality, any kind,” saiad Cronenberg, whose films include “Dead Ringers” and “Spider.” “So to me that’s just a natural thing to explore.”