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.