Often considered David Cronenberg’s “most accessible” film (highlighted in a DVD Special Feature entitled “Too Commercial for Cannes”), A History of Violence is a darkly comic neo-noir tale chronicling a clash of a folksy Indiana town family and the ugly features of organized crime. Cronenberg has proved himself to be a master of the macabre and grotesque in his career and here he masks it under the guise of a modern crime thriller.
Tom Stall (Viggo Mortenson) is labeled a bonafide “hometown hero” after using deadly force to prevent two sadistic criminals from murdering his Diner employees and customers. This is an extreme event in an otherwise “normal” life. Tom and his wife Edie (Maria Bello) enjoy an honest, love-filled relationship, Tom works an honest job, and Tom is an honest father. Even Howard Shore’s lovely musical score (reminiscent at times of his work for Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings) evokes this pastoral life of Tom’s where everyone knows everyone and Sheriffs say, “We take care of our own.”
As with all Cronenberg movies, there’s a disturbing twistiness undercutting it all (the less revealed the better). Viggo Mortenson has rarely been better and I’m still convinced he is perhaps the most undervalued actor working today. Equally brilliant is Maria Bello opposite him, fleshing out her character perfectly and molding with Edie’s transformation. For a family, seemingly stereotypical, enjoying the modest American Dream the characters are sculpted with respect and intrigue.
Cronenberg handles the violence perfectly (and the title is quite fitting), never stylizing it, simply presenting in it, and lets it speak for itself. Its presented in such a way that brings the audience in, makes them complicit in the violence. It is strangely affecting. Often shot with the hard lighting of the Golden Age noirs, A History of Violence equally sheds its genre conventions in its occasional burst of scene-chewing absurdity and black comedy; but Mortenson and Cronenberg (a fantastic pairing) are always there to bring us back into the perversion, the darkness, and the violence.