Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen, quietly effective) is a mild diner owner, living in a peaceful midwestern town, and blessed with a loving family (including Maria Bello). When two crooks decide to harass Tom one late night, the meek storeowner turns the tables quickly, killing both men, and is soon hailed as a hero by the local news. Tom, wary of attention, blows off the incident, but when mysterious men (led by a bullying Ed Harris) visit the area and start harassing him, Tom has to upset his gentle world again to confront his past and protect his future.
Adapted from the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke, “History of Violence” is a strange little film that doesn’t come at the audience in any conventional way. This is an weird, grotesque, funny, and disturbing picture that drips of David Cronenberg’s touch all the way through.
Opening with an idyllic Indiana small town, where every stranger is a neighbor and life is silent and peaceful, Cronenberg sets a tone for “Violence” that is immediately unsettling. Taking his cue from the cheery Americana tone of the obscure source material, “Violence” is pitched at a slightly askew, very theatrical level; earnestly heightened when it deals with Tom’s home life, and bone chilling when brutality comes knocking. The cold juxtaposition of the two moods creates a magnificent aura of suspense, and an uncomfortable feeling of menace that Cronenberg has perfected over the course of his long and memorable career. Tom’s world is going to crash down, but to what extent and how much is Tom going to be complicit with all of this is the question of the movie.
Take “Violence” at face value, and it could appear to be a flat-out mess. Cronenberg brazenly opens the film with a climax-worthy moment, forcing the rest of the film to preserve the unique aura of revelation for the rest Tom’s journey, and it can’t always maintain the level of interest. Cronenberg also deals out his sex and violence with an honesty that is stimulating, but also can be extremely mannered and frustrating. The sex scenes punch hard (and maybe a bit too graphic for some), and eventually come to symbolize the constipation of Tom’s martial communication, while the violence is delivered bluntly, bloodily, and without apology. Cronenberg wants his audience to have several reactions to the three main acts of violence presented in the film, and his steady direction successfully achieves exactly that feat.
As “Violence” moves along, secrets are revealed, characters are forced to confront truths about themselves, and Cronenberg keeps the surprises (I wouldn’t call them twists) coming. By the climax, the film has grown into a deeper and richer filmgoing experience than immediately perceived. Cronenberg has always worked best by getting in under the skin and manipulating from within, and while “Violence” isn’t his most accomplished piece of work, it does return the filmmaker to a traditional style he hasn’t explored since 1986’s “The Fly,” and it’s a welcome, satisfying homecoming.Rating: B+