Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is a quiet, friendly family man who runs a diner in a small, peaceful Indiana town. His wife Edie (Maria Bello) is a successful lawyer, his children, 15-year-old Jack and 6-year-old Sarah, are normal kids on great terms with their parents. Life is pretty good. Or it is until a pair of killers-on-the-run turn up at Stall’s diner, with rape and robbery on their minds. Tom acts quickly and kills the pair, making him a local hero who dared to stand up to these murderous villains. But his reluctant TV appearances bring a new stranger into town – sinister East Coast mobster Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) – who refers to Stall as Joey and claims to know him.
On the face of it, A History of Violence is David Cronenberg’s most ‘normal’ film to date (excluding his late-seventies racing drama Fast Company), but fans will quickly find themselves back in a familiar, uncomfortable world. Tom Stall is the latest in a long line of ordinary men thrust by Cronenberg into extraordinary situations – think The Brood’s Frank Carveth, Videodrome’s Max Renn, The Dead Zone’s Johnny Smith or The Fly’s Seth Brundle. Perhaps in this case there is no shift into the realms of fantasy or sci-fi, but the darkness that comes to envelope Tom and his family is no less horrific than of any of the above. Fogarty believes that Stall is in fact long-missing mob hitman Joey Cusack, a man who once tried to kill him and who he has been dispatched to bring back to Philadelphia. Stall claims not to know Fogarty, and Edie is equally incredulous of these claims, but as the gangsters persist an increasingly aggressive manner towards Tom and his family, it seems as if Tom might have a few secrets in his past.
Like David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, Cronenberg begins his film by painting an idealised portrait of small town American life – a place where there is only one full-time cop, everyone knows everyone else and always has a pleasant word for a stranger. Tom’s wedded life is equally good – he and Edie still enjoy a health sexual relationship after years of marriage – and even though his son Jack is suffering some bullying at school, it’s nothing he can’t handle in a mature, non-violent manner. But as is usually the case in such perfect settings, there is a darkness bubbling under the surface. After she is awoken by a nightmare Tom tells his daughter “there are no monsters”, but he’s wrong and he knows it – nearly 20 years earlier Joey Cusack disappeared and was reborn as Tom Stall, and all it takes is one act of bloodshed to bring out the dormant killer inside him.
With a less assured actor in the lead role, the switch from church-going family man to homicidal gangster could have easily been handled badly, but Viggo Mortensen provides a clever, understated performance. His past is revealed slowly in his eyes and body language, as he is forced to protect his family the only way he really knows how – cue some very nasty bursts of bloody violence – and the sickening confusion he feels as his family slowly realise that Fogarty is telling the truth is palpable. Similarly, Maria Bello excels in portraying the conflicting emotions within Edie, a woman who has dedicated her life to a supposedly wonderful husband, but now finds that everything the family has achieved is based on a lie.
A History of Violence’s villains are less subtly drawn, but no less compelling. Cronenberg opens with a long, unsettling scene focusing upon the murderous pair who later turn up at Tom’s diner – perhaps these are your typical redneck killers, but we’re left in no doubt that they are very bad men. Ed Harris’s softly spoken, disfigured mobster is quietly menacing presence, while (William Hurt) makes a climatic appearance with an uncharacteristically funny turn as the Fogarty’s ruthless boss, whose past is inexorably linked with Stall’s.
There is plenty here for mainstream audiences to enjoy – it’s a slick, gripping thriller with superb performances and an intelligent, darkly funny script from Josh Olson (based on John Wagner and Vince Locke’s graphic novel). But it’s still unmistakably Cronenberg. Howard Shore’s delivers a powerful orchestral score reminiscent of his work on The Fly, and Cronenberg directs with his customary elegant, careful framing, Peter Suschitzky’s cinematography, Ronald Sander’s editing and Carol Spier’s production design all continuing the high standards this team have maintained over 20 years of working together. No other director places sex and violence so closely or uncomfortably together – once Tom’s secret is out and the blood has started to flow, Tom and Edie’s playful lovemaking gives way to frantic, aggressive fucking, as she is both repulsed and turned on by the fact that she is now married to another man.
And once again, Cronenberg proves that he is a master at knowing how to end his films. Some great directors (Spike Lee for example) often have trouble winding their movies up, but A History of Violence is kept to a ruthlessly efficient 96 minutes and closes on a powerful but ambiguous note that echoes the equally chilling final moments of Dead Ringers and Naked Lunch. This is a sly, subversive work that succeeds in both entertaining conclusively and questioning the desire within audiences to lap up explicit sex and violence; in short, it’s one the best films of 2005.
Highly regarded Canadian writer/director who frequently combines intellectual concerns with genre subjects. Began directing in the late-70s with a series of gruesome but socially aware horror thrillers, such as Shivers, Rabid and The Brood. 1981's Scanners was Cronenberg's commercial breakthrough, and if the hallucinatory Videodrome was box office flop, it remains one of the finest films of his career. The sombre Stephen King adaptation The Dead Zone and the hugely successful remake of The Fly followed.
The disturbing Dead Ringers (1988) was a watershed film, based for the first time entirely in reality and featuring a career-best performance from Jeremy Irons. The 1990s saw Cronenberg in uncompromising form, adapting a pair of "unfilmable" modern classics - Burrough's Naked Lunch and Ballard's Crash - in typically idiosyncratic style. M. Butterfly was something of a misfire, but eXistenZ surprised many by being fast-moving and funny, while 2002's powerful Spider saw Cronenberg at his most art-house.