It’s a remarkable film that can successfully combine vastly different tones into a cogent and coherent whole. But David Cronenberg is no ordinary filmmaker, and in “A History of Violence” he manages the feat brilliantly. As the title suggests, it’s essentially a meditation on the propensity for violence that lies beneath the surface of even the most ostensibly ordinary areas of American society. But stylistically it mixes a variety of genres. It’s part domestic drama and part coming-of-age tale, but also part western parody and part gangster send-up. Sometimes melodramatic and sometimes satirical–often in the same frame–it manages to make the medley of genres and moods a rich blend, at once profound and hilarious, serious and absurd. It’s a masterful film that’s masterful in a strange, deceptive way.
The linchpin of the plot is Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), the regular-guy owner of a small-town Indiana diner with a lovely wife Edie (Maria Bella) who’s an attorney, a high-school age son named Jack (Ashton Holmes), and a young daughter, Sarah (Heidi Hayes). A placid, rather halting fellow, Tom becomes an unlikely hero when he dispatches, with amazing dexterity, two brutal thugs (Stephen McHattie and Greg Bryk) who threaten his customers and workers after having slaughtered the staff of the motel they’ve spent the night at (as well as a little girl at the place). His unexpected heroics get him, however reluctantly, on national television, and soon his diner is visited by an unwelcome guest–Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris), a scarred Philadelphia gangster who accuses Tom of actually being Joey Cusack, the thug who disfigured him. Stall, who lives up to his name, puts Fogarty off, but the guy and his goons threaten the family and eventually show up at the farm for a confrontation. Eventually Tom has to travel to Pennsylvania to face off against another local mob chief, Richie Cusack (William Hurt).
This central part of the narrative plays out like a modern take on the old western plot about the retired gunfighter forced to take up arms again, and Mortensen effectively embodies the same laconic, hesitant sort of figure that Clint Eastwood, for example, played in “Unforgiven.” But it’s given a bizarre charge by the performances of McHattie, Harris and Hurt, who are all wildly over-the-top–wonderful caricatures of the genre stereotypes. Meanwhile the domestic side of things, with the rest of the family growing increasingly uncertain about how well they know Tom (a change portrayed most pointedly in Edie, from a scene in which she playfully seduces her husband to one in which he tries to take her by force), is staged with a gnawing sense of suspense that’s almost Hitchcockian. And as a counterpoint to Tom’s story there’s the transformation of Jack, played with considerable subtlety by Holmes, whose reaction against bullying at school and later defense of his father raise the issue of nature versus nurture and the origins of the violent impulse in people. This subplot crystallizes the central questions raised by the film in some ways better than Tom’s story does: the mystery inherent in Jack, though secondary, is in a very real sense more powerful than the one that focuses on his father, and more poignant as well.
Throughout Cronenberg manages, without departing too far from an apparently conventional style, to infuse “The History of Violence” with a genuine sense of menace that’s simultaneously shot through with shards of bleak black comedy, and to juxtapose sequences of stunning brutality with others that are very close to slapstick. It’s a mixture that would seem impossible to pull off, but in his hands it seems perfectly right. He’s abetted by Peter Suschitzky‘s cinematography, which catches the slightly heightened naturalism the piece needs without calling undue attention to itself, and by Howard Shore’s quietly evocative score, which increases the impact of the visuals in a gently insistent way. The acting serves the director’s purposes beautifully, ranging from the extravagant flourishes of McHattie, Harris and Hurt through the more directly naturalistic work of Bello and Holmes to the virtually iconic restraint of Mortensen.
It may well be that many commentators will miss the magic of “A History of Violence,” perhaps partially because it’s based on a graphic novel (and might therefore be dismissed as shallow) but doesn’t try (like “The Road to Perdition” and “Sin City” did, for example) to ape the gloss and vividness of the printed panels. But in the same way that his early films, culminating in “The Fly” and the masterful “Dead Ringers,” transcended the horror genre to which they could be carelessly assigned, so this film goes far beyond its source material, not so much in the visual sense as in the layers it adds to it. Like Tom Stall, the picture might seem ordinary on the surface, but for the attentive and sensitive viewer it holds a great many artistic surprises.