As its term paper-ish title implies, David Cronenberg’s neo-noir A History of Violence is more than simply a classy B-movie; probing the pervasive influence of violence on modern existence is its real ambition. More formally and narratively conventional than 2002’s Spider (or anything in the Canadian auteur’s oeuvre, for that matter), but nonetheless similarly preoccupied with bifurcated identities, personality reinvention, and the constantly shifting borderline between reality and fantasy, Cronenberg’s latest begins, like Robert Siodmak’s The Killers, with the arrival of two thugs at a Norman Rockwell-esque small-town U.S.A diner. When the men attempt to cause a ruckus, a spasm of gunfire and bloodshed (including a blistering coffee pot-to-the-face allusion to The Big Heat) engulfs the restaurant, with the establishment’s everyman owner and happily married father of two Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) emerging from the fracas not only unscathed but a local hero. Rather than making things easier, however, Tom’s exaltation on the 5 o’clock news shatters the quiet reverie of his deliberately anonymous life, his newfound celebrity catching the attention of a cheek-scarred organized crime big-shot named Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) who arrives at the diner (on behalf of his Philadelphia-situated employer) claiming that Tom is actually an old cohort named Joey.
Though firmly denied by Tom, Fogerty’s convincing assertions ignite furious suspicion in Tom’s wife Edie (a stunning, seething Maria Bello) and confusion and mistrust in his teenage son Jack (newcomer Ashton Holmes), who’s dealing with his own vicious power-struggles at school. The desire to be someone else, either for pragmatic or thrill-seeking reasons, is a prime motivator throughout A History of Violence, with a nasty tussle between the Ego (serene domesticity) and the Id (cathartic, pleasurable savageness) taking place in the fractured mind of each character. Employing a menacing western-style score from Howard Shore and disturbingly laconic cinematography courtesy of Peter Suschitzky, Cronenberg methodically peels back the superficial layers of the Stall’s serene, seemingly flawless white picket fence community, revealing a crumbling foundation built on deceit and brutality. Yet finger-wagging moralizing about the evil nature of aggressive behavior is not the director’s aim; his film instead shrewdly assumes an ambiguous stance toward violence in which it’s depicted – especially in the uncertainty-tainted final dinner table tableau – as not only sometimes corrosive and corrupting but also, often, a necessary and beneficial force.
Such an “expose” of middle class hypocrisy and duplicity is hardly earth-shattering (and sporadically ho-hum), and at times one wishes the “America” Cronenberg was intent on examining weren’t such an only-in-the-movies place – though to a lesser extent than Manderlay, Cronenberg occasionally succumbs to viewing the country through a von Trier-ian theoretical prism that eschews realism for moviemaking artifice (here exemplified by the idyllic, postcard-perfect town). Still, by presenting the act of killing as both exhilarating (during the chaotic shootouts and fisticuffs) and horrifying (during the aftermath, which particularly focuses on the corporeal damage done by bullets and beatings), Cronenberg – his direction dry and icy, his humor black and cutting – persistently compels his audience to confront, assess, and reassess their perverse appetite for cinematic carnage. Functioning as both a taut crime film and a scathing dissection of the genre’s utilization and exploitation of bloodshed, A History of Violence is as canny as it is chilling. And especially in its masterful juxtaposition of Tom and Edie’s wildly contrasting sexual encounters (one a childish role-playing tryst, the other a sadistic scuffle that stands as one of the year’s finest scenes), it probes our intrinsic attraction to violence with caustic incisiveness.