*A History of Violence (R)
Chapel Hills 15, Tinseltown
Judging by box office numbers, violence is our favorite steady diet at the movies, and nobody dishes it like director David Cronenberg.
Notably, Cronenberg has served up a dark and fantastic remake of The Fly (1986), the ultra-suspenseful The Dead Zone (1983), the sick gynecologist romp Dead Ringers (1988), and Spider (2002), which starred Ralph Fiennes as a deeply disturbed mental patient.
Cronenberg focuses on the violence of humans against humans, not on car crashes or cinematic falls from tall buildings, and faithfully prods the edges of human normality, searching for a breaking point.
With A History of Violence, Cronenberg treads tentatively at the edge of the mainstream, delivering a film that is both pulp thriller and delicately rendered art. Further titillating and often confusing the audience, this ultra-violent love story is laced with over-the-top comic moments and tips of the hat to the classic Western genre.
Adapted from a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke, this is the story of mild-mannered family man Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), owner of the Millbrook, Ind., town diner, and the fateful day two sleazebags walk in and threaten him, his employees and a couple customers.
We're introduced to Tom in a tender scene that slyly says, "Stereotype!" His little white-haired daughter has a bad dream and he rushes to her bed, assuring her there's no such thing as monsters. Big brother Jack (Ashton Holmes) comes in, turning on the lights, and soon, beatific mom Edie (Maria Bello) joins the threesome in bed for a hug-fest. Surely this is the all-American family, safe and secure from all alarm.
But when the thugs enter Stall's diner and presage violence, Tom retreats behind his light blue eyes, sizes up the scene, then pounces in a moment of compressed terror and vengeance, vaulting the counter and knocking off both bad guys in record time. He becomes someone else briefly, a badass and a small-town hero, his story broadcast over television and his picture on the front pages of area newspapers.
Stall's newfound fame beckons a new trio of bad guys to the diner, headed by a darkly comic Ed Harris. His Fogarty, a mobster with a facial scar, a milky blind eye and a knack for menacing smarminess, believes Tom really is Joey Cusack, a former tough guy from Philly who is responsible for his facial deformity.
We are left with the question that drives the film: Is Tom who he appears to be, or someone else? And if he once was someone else, we're invited to muse on the deeper philosophical question: Can anyone really shed the scars and responsibilities of a former life? Is true change possible?
Mortensen's wonderfully transparent depiction of this inner and outer turmoil is the best performance of his career. Revolving around him in a swirl of confusion, both Bello and young Holmes deliver solid, multi-dimensional performances.
Cronenberg throws in two breathtaking sex scenes that explore the deep divide in Stall's life, choreographed as graphically and tightly as the stunning and revolting scenes of fist and gun violence that punctuate the film. Never one to lose his footing, Cronenberg carefully crafts the film around the family, inviting us to view the womb of violence.
Howard Shore's discordant but resonant musical score quietly weaves the film through its various segments, binding it into a mysterious and solidly constructed theatrical piece.
-- Kathryn Eastburn