"A History of Violence" is a ticking time bomb of a movie, a gripping, incendiary, casually subversive piece of work that marries pulp watchability with larger concerns without skipping a beat. It's a tightly controlled film about an out-of-control situation: the predilection for violence in America and how that affects both individuals and the culture as a whole.
It's the gift of "Violence," which stars Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello and features terrific support from Ed Harris and William Hurt, that it manages to do all these things without seeming to make a fuss. That's how strong and compelling its dead-on plot is, and how much command of the medium veteran Canadian director David Cronenberg demonstrates.
With more than a dozen features to his credit over three decades as a director, Cronenberg is a filmmaker whose previous work, from "Scanners" to "Naked Lunch," "Dead Ringers" and "The Fly," has usually played out on reality's farthest shores. But not this time.
Working from a script by Josh Olson adapted from John Wagner and Vince Locke's graphic novel, Cronenberg reprises the naturalistic style he used in 1983's underappreciated "The Dead Zone." His protagonists are Tom and Edie Stall (Mortensen and Bello), believably happily married and "living the American dream," as one character puts it, with their two children in bucolic Millbrook, Ind. "I'm the luckiest son of a bitch alive," Tom says early on, with Edie replying feelingly, "You are the best man I know. No luck involved."
"I enjoyed that aspect of the film, it was like a free gift," the director explained when "Violence" debuted at Cannes. "When you're inventing weird stuff, you have to start from scratch so the audience gets it. The dynamics of family are so understood you can start from a higher level and go further. You get the gift of emotional intensity, people relate and are drawn in in a way a bizarre fantasy never could accomplish."
Though Cronenberg didn't say so, having normally excessive directors attach themselves to nominally conventional stories has other benefits. Even when they're on their best behavior, filmmakers like Cronenberg can't help but add their own provocative, off-kilter tone to the material. And because these sensibilities are filtered through a deceptively straightforward story, the effect is disturbing in ways that more fantastical tales, easily dismissible as unrealistic, rarely are.
It's a measure of Cronenberg's confidence in his material, his cast and his own skill that he purposely opens this ultimately compelling film with a glacially paced sequence of a pair of drifters checking out of a motel at a velocity that only Jim Jarmusch in full "Broken Flowers" mode could love.
It's apparent almost at once that these are not the best of men, and with the introduction of Stall, owner-operator of Millbrook's popular luncheonette, we know in the pit of ourstomachs that a collision is inevitable.
Beyond that early confrontation, however, all bets are off as "Violence" changes narrative direction and focus frequently without ever losing sight of the ideas behind its breakneck plot.
For what this film is concerned with more than anything is the pernicious, corrosive effects of violence, the way its pervasive taint is as hard to rub off as blood is to wash out. Each act of mayhem in the film, however seemingly justified, simply begets yet another one, until it starts to seem axiomatic that once you let violence into your life it will never leave you alone, never allow anything to be the same. The question is, once you've taken someone's life, can you ever be a whole person again?
Despite its subject matter, "Violence" never loses sight of a resolve not to go overboard à la Quentin Tarantino in its depiction of violence. What we see is strong enough to give the film an R rating, but Cronenberg's veteran cameraman Peter Suschitzky and editor Ronald Sanders never stray from the director's determination to make the violence what he's called, echoing Thomas Hobbes' famous line, "nasty, brutish and short."
What Stall does to get the plot in gear would fit a classic movie definition of heroism, but this nontraditional film is more concerned with not letting us forget that it is also violent, and as such has an effect on all the relationships in Stall's life, including his intimate moments with his wife and how he interacts with his teenage son, Jack, and his younger daughter, Sarah (Ashton Holmes and Heidi Hayes, both making strong feature debuts).
The instant celebrity Stall achieves with his actions in this age of media overkill has an especially unexpected result. Its an indication of how much his life has been changed that it draws to town Carl Fogarty (Harris), an East Coast mobster with a ravaged face and an insinuating manner who inexplicably insists that Stall is someone he knows from the past. Both Harris and a fellow mobster played by Hurt are indelible, savagely theatrical characterizations, brilliant encapsulations of controlled, bitter menace that show sides of both actors that we've never really seen before.
From an acting point of view, however, this film belongs to Mortensen and Bello as a severely challenged husband and wife. Making use of Mortensen's sweetness and vulnerability as well as his "Lord of the Rings" physicality, Tom Stall is one of the best roles Mortensen has had, and he takes full advantage of it. Matching her costar's level of commitment, Bello gives her most involving performance, supplying a level of emotional belief that is the film's secret weapon, holding it together no matter where it goes.
"A History of Violence" finally belongs to the man who held the entire equation of the film in his head and made it add up, David Cronenberg. Yes, the director admitted in Cannes, this effort on one level does not seem as initially challenging as some of the films he's done before. On the other hand, "it has a simplicity, such a transparency that you can see through it into something else that is underneath. And that something else is quite disturbing." Quite disturbing indeed.
'A History of Violence'
MPAA rating: R for brutal violence, graphic sexuality, nudity, language and some drug use.
Times guidelines: Considerable violence and frank sexuality.
Released by New Line Cinema. Director David Cronenberg. Producers Chris Bender, J.C. Spink. Screenplay Josh Olson, based on the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke. Editor Ronald Sanders. Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky. Running time: I hour, 38 minutes. In general release.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times