Violence is scary. Violence is sexy. Violence is wrong. Violence is righteous. Violence is a problem. Violence is the solution. Befitting its title, David Cronenberg's film A History of Violence comprises all these definitions and more.
Just released on video, the film opens with a pulpy paean to small-town murderousness, as two drifters check out of a dusty, rural motel. The air of lazy depravity is palpable; bad acts are hinted at--"I had a little trouble with the maid," one man tells the other--before they are revealed. This Dick-and-Perry opening is quickly juxtaposed with a vision of bucolic contentment: A little girl awakens from a nightmare and is comforted by her loving family. Her father assures her that "There's no such thing as monsters." But we've already seen this is not true, a fact of which they will all soon become aware.
The man is Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), and in addition to his daughter, Sarah, he has a beautiful wife, Edie (Maria Bello), and a gentle, teenage son, Jack (Ashton Holmes). Tom is the proprietor of a friendly diner in the fictional hamlet of Millbrook, Indiana--the diner and the town both evoking the out-of-the-way paradise in which Robert Mitchum hid from his misdeeds in Out of the Past. Like Mitchum's Jeff Bailey, Tom will soon be visited by men with guns, though in this case it will be unclear whether the past they emerge from belongs to Tom or to another man.
The trouble begins when the two dead-eyed predators of the film's opening appear at the diner one night around closing. Tom offers them what little he has in the cash register, but it is clear that their appetites are more feral. Within moments, pistols are drawn, the door is locked, and a waitress is pinned down. It is then that Tom does what all of us would do in our fantasy lives but so few of us are capable of in our real ones: He cracks one of the thugs in the skull with a coffee pot, vaults over the counter to retrieve the man's gun, and puts enough bullets in the two intruders to ensure neither will ever menace innocent folk again. It's a scene both familiar and fresh, a vision of violent mastery simultaneously intoxicating and grotesque. There's no slow motion or soft focus to glamorize the encounter, which is over almost as soon as it begins. Instead the camera lingers for just an instant over one of the dead men, who chokes and gurgles through a jaw blown almost clean off his face. This will be no ordinary movie about a valiant vigilante.
The townsfolk celebrate Tom's deed, of course. The paper anoints him a "local hero," only to have the TV news raise the ante to "American hero." Tom's family is affected by his new notoriety, too, especially the bully-plagued Jack, who sees in his father's actions an alternative to the turn-the-other-cheek lessons he's received at home.
The next day, the diner is again visited by dangerous men, but this time there are three of them, and their arrival is no accident. The leader, Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris), is a gravel-voiced killer with the most villainously scarred eye since Donald Pleasence took his turn as Bond nemesis Blofeld in You Only Live Twice. Fogarty explains patiently that he saw Tom on the news and recognized him from another time and by another name, "Joey Cusack." It was "crazy fucking Joey" who many years ago mutilated his eye with a length of barbed wire, Fogarty later tells Edie. And while he never says so explicitly, it's clear he would like to balance the ledger.
Tom swears to Fogarty--and to Edie, his kids, the local police--that it's a mistake: He's not this "Joey," has never even heard of him. But Fogarty is quietly certain, and he and his men begin stalking Tom and his family--driving by the diner, following Edie and little Sarah at the mall, finally arriving on the doorstep of the house, guns ready.
To this point, Cronenberg directs with understated finesse, allowing the layers of uncertainty to intersect with surprising force. Is Fogerty wrong about Tom, and ready to kill an innocent family man? Or is Edie wrong, and married for years to a cold-blooded killer? The consequences of Tom's actions in the coffee shop continue to ripple outward as well. When Jack, in a burst of rage, pummels the bully who's ridden him all year, is he honoring or degrading his father's example?
The kindly local sheriff (Peter MacNeill) captures the queasy dissonance in adjacent scenes. Trying impotently to warn Fogarty out of Millbrook, he explains, "This is a nice town. We have nice people here." Shortly thereafter, he informs Tom and Edie that Fogarty and his men are "organized crime from the East Coast. The real thing. The bad men." It's in this distance, between Nice People and Bad Men, that A History of Violence finds its odd power. Whichever story one believes--Tom's, Fogarty's--the categories are shown to be fungible. Is Tom a killer with an extraordinary aptitude for losing himself in small-town family life, or a small-town family man with an extraordinary aptitude for killing people? Does even he know for sure anymore? His mutability confounds the categories we rely on to make sense of the world.
But just shy of the film's one-hour mark there's a confession--I won't say whose--that answers the riddle of Tom's identity. From that moment on, one can almost hear the slow hiss of suspense leaking out of the movie. There are a few powerful moments still to come, but A History of Violence has played its best card, and done so prematurely. Making matters worse, the film will soon abandon the by-now-ominous confines of Millbrook for a generic big city, and William Hurt will show up to offer a mannered, borderline campy performance that pulls the rug out from under the naturalistic menace that has been so meticulously cultivated. (Why did the Academy choose to nominate this ruinous role for an Oscar? You got me.)
Among its many disappointments, this last portion of A History of Violence squanders an otherwise exceptional performance by Mortensen. The rest of the cast (with the exception of Hurt) is strong throughout, but this is Mortensen's movie, and he rises to the occasion. Born to a Danish father and American mother, and having spent much of his youth in Venezuela, Argentina, and Denmark, he's not the first actor you'd think of to play an American Everyman. But his diffidence, the slight sense he carries of being out of place, is apt for Tom, the man who may or may not be an imposter. Though Mortensen had the look for Aragorn in his career-making role in the Lord of the Rings films, he never quite had the disposition. His voice is a little too thin and reedy for him to be the King of All Men, and he is too circumspect a performer, too mindful that there may not be a bright line between wrong and right. For all his heroic looks and athletic carriage, A History of Violence (as well as the surprisingly watchable Dial M for Murder remake, A Perfect Murder) suggests he may be better suited to more ambivalent roles.
Indeed, one has to wonder why A History of Violence, adapted from a graphic novel by screenwriter Josh Olson, felt an obligation ever to offer an explanation of its central mystery. Imagine if Tom had always maintained he was Tom, the villains had always maintained he was Joey, and the film had been content not to take sides, to leave the question forever open-ended. The story would have required tweaking, of course, but what an unsettling existential thriller it might have been. Instead, the gripping uncertainty of the film's first two-thirds gives way to a dreary, plodding literalism.
Up until the final scene, that is. Tom, having committed other ugly but perhaps necessary acts, returns to his family dinner table. As the kids clear a space for him, he and Edie share an ambiguous glance. Is he corrupted by the bloodshed or restored to innocence? Is the family safe or will more bad men come for them? The film remains agnostic. Violence is many things, it seems to say, but there's little reason to believe it's over.
The Home Movies List: Life (and death) in the country
Out of the Past (1947). Often imitated but never matched, Jacques Tourneur's masterpiece epitomizes the noir genre even as it transcends it. The film made Robert Mitchum not only a star but an enduring icon of American cool.
Bad Day at Black Rock (1955). Here, it is the town itself that holds a dark secret and the visiting stranger who arrives to shed light on it. John Sturges's engrossing neo-western has dated somewhat, but Spencer Tracy is still magnificent as the heroic, one-armed interloper, as is Robert Ryan as the chief villain.
One False Move (1992). Two years before writing the short Some People Call It a Sling Blade, Billy Bob Thornton exercised his pen coauthoring this hard-boiled tale of very bad men from Los Angeles (one of them played powerfully by Thornton himself) descending on a rural Arkansas town and its clueless sheriff. In the latter role, Bill Paxton gave the best performance of his career to date, a moving portrayal of oafish heroism.
Flesh and Bone (1993). Unjustly overlooked by audiences and critics alike, writer-director Steve Kloves's follow-up to The Fabulous Baker Boys is a moody, beautiful meditation on death and destiny. James Caan is chilling as a bad man grown old whose sins are visited on his son (Dennis Quaid). A young Gwyneth Paltrow also impresses.
Dogville (2003). Memo to Lars von Trier: For your next withering critique of American life, try to 1) find a few more American actors with whom to populate your Anytown, USA; 2) hire someone vaguely familiar with American idiom to take a look at the script; and 3) come up with a slightly more sophisticated metaphor for capitalism than serial rape. Just suggestions.
This post originally appeared at TNR.com.