Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) would seem to be your average, everyday soul residing in Small Town, USA. With two kids, his lawyer wife Edie (Maria Bello), a house out in the country, and a respectable job running a coffee shop in the heart of quiet Millbrook, Ind., life’s good for Tom.
Still, this is a David Cronenberg film, so you just know things aren’t quite what they seem. Having helmed dark movies such as the 1986 remake of The Fly and Dead Ringers, Cronenberg has never been one to shy away from a little violence. After all, violence is in this film’s title.
But with many of his movies also skewing towards the bizarre, A History of Violence is probably Cronenberg’s most conventional and accessible movie yet. Clearly, some of that credit has to go to Josh Olsen’s Oscar-nominated screenplay, an adaptation of a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke.
The cast also helps considerably at drawing in the viewer, by carving out memorable performances, some in very limited screen time (Oscar nominee William Hurt dazzles in a true departure from previous roles in his mere 10 minutes on camera).
Mortensen gives a quietly intense, but understated performance as Tom, a man who would seemingly love nothing more than his life to maintain status quo. That hope is swiftly interrupted as a couple of gun toting thugs come riding into town looking for money and target Tom’s diner. But when Tom realizes they also intend to do harm to the employees and customers, he takes matters into his own hands and makes quick work of the criminals.
Recognized as a hero, Tom quickly becomes a media darling, bringing a whole lot of attention he could care less about. Shortly thereafter, mobster Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris, appropriately creepy) comes to town, convinced that Tom is a very familiar and disliked face from his past.
Despite warnings from the law to get out of town, Fogarty expands his harassment of Tom by following his family around. Fogarty’s confrontation in a shopping mall with Edie is unsettling for her, yet plants a seed of just how far he is willing to go with his strong conviction. “You should ask Tom how come he’s so good at killing people,” Fogarty suggests.
Edie and Tom begin to fear how this volatile scenario will play out, with Fogarty continuing to press the issue by paying a visit to the family’s home. Where the story goes from there is best left to be revealed upon viewing, so I’ll say no more about it.
While the actors do a good job at showing different shades of their characters, as well as the impact of violence on this particular family, the movie suffers from a sluggish pace at times. Plus, the realization that violence begets violence is hardly a revelation. That’s not to say that the violence in the film isn’t occasionally shocking in its swiftness. It’s just that some of the scenes lack an underlying credibility.
Still, carrying a number of violent confrontations during the movie’s running time, Cronenberg strikes just the right chord with its concluding scene. It also ranks as the film’s quietest, as nary a word is spoken. But what it says in silence speaks volumes.
(Rated R for brutal violence, graphic sexuality, nudity, language and some drug use.)