Canadian film-maker David Cronenberg is mostly associated with so-called 'body-horror' movies, such pictures as Shivers, The Fly, Dead Ringers and Crash, involving mutilation, physical transformation, cloning, extreme gynaecology and strange prosthetics. His excellent new film, however, A History of Violence, is a seemingly orthodox thriller that takes him south of the 49th Parallel and the title refers both to the problematic background of its hero and to the role of violence in American society and popular culture.
The pared-down narrative centres on Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), a quiet family man in his early forties who runs a diner on the main street of a small town in Indiana, the Midwestern state traditionally identified by social observers and Hollywood writers as the most typical part of America. Tom's sweet six-year-old daughter has to sleep with a night light because she's haunted by monsters. His 15-year-old son retains a pacifist stance in the face of school bullies and mocks their machismo. His wife Edie (Maria Bello) puts on her high-school cheerleader outfit to play sex games with Tom as a way of inventing a teenage romance they never actually experienced.
A certain unease is sensed beneath the family's placid surface before the film moves into two subtle reworkings of The Killers, Hemingway's classic story of two wisecracking hitmen coming to a Midwestern diner in search of a mob traitor, the tale which inspired Edward Hopper's Nighthawks. Cronenberg, incidentally, played the sinister hitman who comes to kill Nicole Kidman in Gus Van Sant's To Die For.
First, a pair of ruthless criminals take over Tom's diner, but when the lives of his waitress and short-order cook are threatened, he suddenly turns on the intruders, killing both and getting wounded himself. It's an exhilarating moment, as sudden and exciting as Alan Ladd first pulling his gun in Shane, former CIA man Gene Hackman revealing his lethal skills in Arthur Penn's Target, and one-armed former soldier Spencer Tracy turning on his tormentors in Bad Day at Black Rock.
Tom becomes a reluctant local hero and to his alarm, which we take to be modesty, his face gets on TV. We then have a second variation on The Killers as three menacing men arrive in the diner, a sardonic man in a black suit and dark glasses called Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) and two rougher henchmen. Fogarty has watched the TV news and identifies Tom as Joey Cusack from Philadelphia. Tom denies the claim, saying he's never been there and orders them to leave.
The sheriff's investigations reveal that Fogarty is a mobster on the East Coast. When the crooks return, Fogarty tells Tom's wife that her husband is an underworld enforcer who left him for dead some 15 years before during a dispute between rival gangs in Philadelphia, the town founded by Quakers as 'the city of brotherly love'.
Is this a case of mistaken identity or is Tom really Cusack? And, if so, has he changed his nature and found redemption? This is a classic western plot, the tale of the reformed bad man starting a new life and then being confronted by his past. One thinks especially of Gary Cooper in Man of the West and Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven.
What Cronenberg does here is to strip the story down to essentials, while at the same time locating it in a convincing present-day world. He makes us question not merely the behaviour of the characters but our own attitudes towards violence in life and on the screen.
There is a great deal more mayhem after these initial killings at the diner and one particular instance sees Tom's son, encouraged by his father's new heroic reputation, turning the tables on his persecutors at school, putting one of them in hospital. When Tom's wife becomes aware of his possible past, there ensues a terrifying replay of their innocent sex games, but now as a potent mix of sex and violence with all tenderness gone.
In the heady Sixties, Black Power leader Rap Brown called violence 'as American as cherry pie' and this ready acceptance of physical conflict in everyday life, in entertainment and as an agent of public policy, lies at the heart of the movie. A History of Violence is a thoughtful film that provokes as it entertains. The performances are uniformly excellent, with Mortensen and Harris particularly good, and the film is superbly lit by Cronenberg's regular cinematographer, Peter Suschitzky. There are odd implausibilities, but the film moves at such a pace that we don't dwell on them.