3 stars (out of four)
After it made a big splash at this year's Cannes Film Festival, I read somewhere that David Cronenberg's "A History of Violence" is "impersonating an action flick," which sounds really meta, man, until you see that the film works much better as an actual action flick than that quote gives it credit for.
Part action, part thriller, part Western, part comedy, part horror, part family drama, Cronenberg's latest and most palatable foray into the dark side focuses on an idyllic small-town Indiana family of four--dad Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), who owns Stall's Diner on a street that could only be called Main or State; mom Edie (Maria Bello), a lawyer who wears the pants in the family and makes love to her husband as though they were still teenagers; son Jack (Ashton Holmes), an "O.C."-smart kid who uses sarcasm and weed to diffuse high school hell; and young daughter Sarah, the baby princess.
Loosely based on the graphic novel of the same name, "Violence" pits good versus evil pretty much from the get-go, when two violent criminals waltz into Tom's diner at closing time, threaten his waitress at gunpoint and inspire in Tom the kind of heroic brutality unseen in these parts. Yes, he kills the bad men in methodic fashion--think Matt Damon in "Bourne Identity"--and is quickly dubbed by the local media "an American hero." (When Tom blows off a news crew on his front lawn, the polished reporter turns to her camera and says with faux-stoicism, "Tom Stall: American hero and man of few words.")
All the media attention attracts even more bad men to town--namely Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris, with a creepy glass eye), who thinks he knows Tom from way-back-when in Philly, when, he says, Tom was called Joey and was, like Carl, a vicious mobster.
How Carl's assertion effects the Stall family and what it inspires in both father and son is, I suppose, where Cronenberg squeezes in his requisite social commentary, but the criticism feels detached and tends to lean toward the obvious, with Tom's cross always hanging out of his shirt after he gives someone a serious beating. (Or the verbal equivalent: When Jack beats up a bully at school, Tom yells, "In this family, we don't solve our problems by hitting people." "No," Jack fires back, "in this family we shoot them!")
More often than not, the movie chokes on its own dialogue (see above), and though completely different in story and tone, reminded me of "Million Dollar Baby"--both films made by very smart men who rely on some very dumb lines to say some very base things.
But still, Cronenberg crafts a remarkably interesting thriller, with suspense that is less about what's coming around the corner--often, we know--and more about Tom's slow transformation in the face of terror.
Mortensen, best known as the handsome, long-locked Aragon in "Lord of the Rings," ages and sinks before our eyes as the weight of circumstance slowly wears him into a different man. And if circumstance has a face, it's Harris', leathery and scarred, with lips that speak the name "Joey" as a terrifying accusation in a calm Philly drawl.
If this all sounds very heavy, well, it is, but it's also very, very funny. Cronenberg may want to say something important about violence, but he's also head over heels for it, ending each gunfight and neck-breaking with a close-up on the victim, blood either pooling behind his head or brains spilling from his face. Big laughs.
This is when the Cronenberg sensibility mind-melds with the hyper-real graphic novels that are all the rage these days with the cool kids, but "Violence" also suffers for its source material, too often detached when it gets close to human beings and one-dimensional in its approach to complex themes.
Which, of course, is the sign of a pretty good action flick.
"A History of Violence"
Directed by David Cronenberg; screenplay by Josh Olson; photographed by Peter Suschitzky; edited by Ronald Sanders; production designed by Carol Spier; music by Howard Shore; produced by Chris Bender and JC Spink. A New Line Cinema release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:36. MPAA rating: R (strong brutal violence, graphic sexuality, nudity, language and some drug use).
Tom Stall - Viggo Mortensen
Edie Stall - Maria Bello
Ashton Holmes - Jack Stall
Carl Fogarty - Ed Harris
Richie Cusack - William HurtCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times