Other films this year will have to sweat bullets to match the explosive power and subversive wit of David Cronenberg's A History of Violence. It slams you like a body punch and then starts messing with your head. Because the film concerns a family in the Midwest, and suspense and sexuality do a seductive mating dance on the plot's surface, History is being touted as the Canadian maverick's olive branch to the mainstream. Maybe so, but only if you've never heard of subtext or watched Cronenberg sabotage all things packaged as bright and beautiful. There are those who rag on the director as Dave Deprave, the flesh freak who plays mind games with damaged, oozing body parts in films like Scanners, The Fly, Dead Ringers, Videodrome, Crash and Naked Lunch. Open your eyes, people. This is a world-class director, at the top of his startlingly creative form.
Working from a fierce and funny script that Josh Olson loosely based on the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke, Cronenberg sucks us in with cunning skill. He makes life look Norman Rockwell normal in the off-the-map burg of Millbrook, Indiana, where Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen in the performance of his career so far) runs the local diner and runs home to his hot lawyer wife, Edie (Maria Bello), and their two kids, Jack (Ashton Holmes), 15, and Sarah (Heidi Hayes), 6. The Stalls are not the Waltons. After twenty years of togetherness, Tom and Edie still sneak off for kinky fun, with Edie dressing like a cheerleader to stiffen Tom's ardor.
Role-playing takes another guise when two armed robbers threaten to shoot up the diner. The mild-mannered Tom is suddenly Indiana Jones, throwing scalding coffee and leaping across and under tables — getting stabbed in the foot in the process — before grabbing a gun and killing the men. Cronenberg gives the scene a quick, brutal urgency bolstered by fluid camerawork from the gifted Peter Suschitzky. We're shocked by the violence, but also complicit in it. We want the creeps dead. The media saddle Tom with a new role: hero.
Tom's face on the tube catches the attention of Fogarty (the ever-superb Ed Harris), a black-suited, dead-eyed, scar-faced Irish hood from Philly who limos up to the diner and unnerves Tom by calling him Joey Cusack, a fellow mobster Fogarty has been hunting down for years. Tom's denial leads to even uglier confrontations with an underworld — William Hurt mixes mirth and menace to devastating effect as one of its kingpins — turning a wonderland into a waking nightmare.
Is Tom a killer or the victim of a "wrong man" scenario out of a Hitchcock thriller? I'll never tell, and you shouldn't let anyone else squeal. Consider only that while Cronenberg expertly throws us curves, he is also showing how an unprecedented burst of violence can turn a peaceful man into an object of fear and intense attraction. At school, Tom's son (Holmes gives the role a touching complexity) batters the bully who's been battering him. Again, we cheer. Edie is less certain.
Cronenberg couldn't ask for better actors to fill these tricky roles. Mortensen, best known for the Lord of the Rings trilogy but at his best in smaller films that make larger demands (The Indian Runner, The Portrait of a Lady, A Walk on the Moon), meets every challenge of a role that calls for subtlety and sureness. And Bello is dynamite as a woman who is forced to look for signs of a stone killer inside the gentle man she married. In a scene that's sure to stir up controversy, Edie fights Tom off on the family staircase. He thinks sex will reinforce their bond. But when her resistance gives way to lust, it's not for her husband but for this stranger who scares and excites her.
Cronenberg knows Americans have a history of violence. It's wired into our DNA. Without a hint of sermonizing, he shows how we secretly crave what we publicly condemn, and how we even make peace with it. The family tableau that ends the film is as chilling and redemptive as anything Cronenberg has ever crafted. You won't know what hit you.