A History of Violence

The title “A History of Violence” works on at least two levels for the film it represents. On the one hand, we have a main character who may, in fact, have a history of violence in his life. But more deeply, the film gives us a “history of violence” — the way it has always, throughout time, been an ugly, gross fact of life, and the way it shapes society. The movie is both a personal and general treatise on bloodshed.

It is a singular piece of work, too, directed by the weird (but never boring) David Cronenberg (“The Fly,” “The Dead Zone”) with coolness, control and precision. Even the most violent scenes seem to occur slowly and matter-of-factly — not like a documentary, for Cronenberg is nothing if not stylish, but as if they are inevitable. The characters were left to their own devices and violence is simply what occurred.

Our subject is Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), owner of a diner in tiny Millbrook, Ind. He is the loving (and passionate) husband of Edie (Maria Bello), and devoted father of teenage Jack (Ashton Holmes) and little girl Sarah (Heidi Hayes). The Stalls’ small-town life is so idyllic, and their togetherness so complete, that when Sarah has a nightmare, the entire family winds up in her room to comfort her. A bad dream is what passes for excitement around here.

Then one night everything changes. Two thugs enter the diner at closing time. We met them in the film’s prologue, when they were the authors of a brutal scene at a motel. We know they intend not just to rob Tom’s diner, but to murder everyone in it. Tom doesn’t have the background on these guys that we do, but he intuits it. He acts heroically, kills both villains and saves the day.

He becomes a local and national hero. The diner, heretofore sparsely populated, is soon packed with customers. A naturally genteel and quiet man, Tom is reluctant to discuss the event — he did kill two men, after all — and even more reluctant to have so much attention drawn to him.

Another day, three different men enter the diner. They have East Coast accents and wear slick suits. They call Tom by the name Joey. They suggest he is not who he says he is, that he is not who everyone in town knows him to be. He calmly, even bemusedly, tells them they’ve got the wrong guy. The men’s spokesperson, played by Ed Harris, asks the question that must be on the minds of everyone in Millbrook since the incident: “How come he’s so good at killing people?”

This question should make the audience uncomfortable. When Tom defeats the killers in the diner, there is no question of how he learned to fight so well or to react so quickly or to shoot so accurately. We accept it because in the movies, mild-mannered people are always spontaneously becoming action heroes. People who have never held guns before have perfect aim, and men who have never fought outside the schoolyard are expert combatants. It’s just how movies ARE.

But now the Ed Harris character (and by extension the film) is asking us to consider the real-life implications: How could someone so ordinary behave so violently, not to mention so efficiently? And are we so inured to movie violence that when it happens, we don’t even ask questions?

The irony that David Cronenberg should be addressing such a topic is not lost on me. For more than 30 years, the Canadian creepmaster has demonstrated if not a fondness for violence, then at least a fascination with it. The most famous image from one of his most famous movies (“Scanners”) is of a man’s head exploding, for heaven’s sake.

Yet all the gruesomeness in “A History of Violence” (which was adapted by Josh Olson from John Wagner and Vince Locke’s graphic novel) arises naturally from the situations, and it is not without its consequences. That is the point of the film: that despite what you see in the movies, you don’t shoot a guy, watch him die bloodlessly, then call it a day. There are ramifications. The result of Tom killing those two murderers is that a few days later, he is up against three others. Later, there are five more. As hard as Tom tries to live peaceably, chaos begets more chaos. That’s why he’s so disturbed when his son Jack gets into a fight at school, his first ever. Once you open the door, it’s hard to close it.

Cronenberg does a nice job bringing symmetry to the film. A scene of Tom and Edie’s sensual relationship early on is balanced later by her animalistic attraction to — and simultaneous repulsion from — his new-found violent streak. It’s disgusting, but at the same time, it turns her on. A strong, powerful man who can protect you from evildoers? What’s hotter than that?

What’s remarkable is that while the film has a point to make, it does it without a heavy hand. Simply on a visceral level, the movie is enthralling, with secrets, surprises, turns and twists, all in the service of a psychologically thrilling story. Mortensen is sparkling and unflappable as Tom, while William Hurt gets one devilishly comedic scene in what is essentially the Christopher Walken role (i.e., the crazy bad guy who makes you laugh while he makes you nervous).

There are moments in the film that are grotesquely funny. But at other times, I feel like the movie is indicting us for being entertained when we ought to be horrified. The audience I saw the film with reacted with vocal enthusiasm to the violent scenes, and were just as audibly disappointed when the film ended on an ambiguous note. If they couldn’t have more violence, they at least wanted an assurance that everything was OK now that the need for violence had passed — a tidy ending, in other words. I think they missed the point, which was that violence has repercussions that sometimes can’t be easily resolved. This is a movie where things don’t happen the way they do in the movies.

A (1 hr., 36 min.; R, several scenes of graphic violence, some very strong sexuality, brief nudity, a lot of profanity.)