Dir: David Cronenberg.US. 2005. 96mins
Two American genres - thefilm noir and the Western - are gene-spliced into vigorous new shape in whatlooks, at first sight, like David Cronenberg's most mainstream project inyears. Yet A History Of Violence, a deviously-plotted tale of danger andthe darkness beneath innocent surfaces, soon reveals characteristic themes thatafford Cronenberg fans plenty of rich gristle to chew over.
But it should also make apowerful draw for audiences less committed to Cronenberg's auteur brand:effective both as a nail-biting thriller and as a knowing philosophical artfilm, Cronenberg's latest is executed with a no-nonsense leanness that confirmshis status as a master of classical screen language.
The film's only liability,paradoxically, is its unpredictability: the press kit asks critics not toreveal its plot twists, which may prove an insuperable challenge for anyin-depth assessment. But assuming its key secrets can be kept fresh for a whileat least, the film looks like Cronenberg's most commercial shot in ages. Onesuspects that the film should in any case sustain repeat viewings, ensuring ahealthy DVD existence.
It will also boost thereputations of its stars: Maria Bello, who gets better and better as a smart,sexy, more mature female lead; and Viggo Mortensen, whose post-Lord of theRings image as a strong, silent hero is given some adroit twists.
The film begins with a long,teasingly paced opening shot that establishes a neo-Western tone, as twosinister types (McHattie, Bryk) check out of a secluded motel, leading to amarrow-chilling payoff. The action then shifts to archetypal small townMillbrook, where neighbourly Tom Stall (Mortensen) runs the local diner, wifeEdie (Bello) is an attorney, and their children, teenage Jack (Holmes) andblonde-moppet daughter Sarah (Hayes) are loving progeny.
As expected, the twodesperadoes turn up with evil intent, but Tom saves the day and is acclaimed onthe news as an "American hero and man of few words." But as a result of hismedia exposure, another menace arrives: a scarred Philadelphia heavy (Harris)with a few theories of his own about Tom's past.
This is about as much plotas can be safely revealed: suffice to say that once violence has erupted in theStalls' cosy world, it can't easily be stopped. Josh Olson's crafty script isconstantly surprising, even when it seems - towards the end - to head into moreconventional revenge-drama territory.
What's especially impressiveis the grace with which Cronenberg navigates a razor's edge of irony, giving usa sly what's-wrong-with-this-picture portrait of the Stall household withoutever opting for cheap sarcasm at the expense of this Norman Rockwell-esquepeace-loving, church-going advert for heartland family values.
Much of this fine balancedepends on Mortensen's performance as the gentle, tough but taciturn familyman, a part that builds quite overtly on the Gary Cooper template; and therole, as Tom's character further unfolds, sees Mortensen performing withremarkably well-judged understatement. In addition, he and Bello sparkwonderfully in two complementary sex scenes that gauge the changes in Tom andEdie's relationship.
Richly textured with echoes,the film brings to mind other stories of peaceful types turning to desperateaction (eg Straw Dogs), Hitchcock's small-town drama Shadow Of ADoubt, and a host of defending-the-homestead Westerns.
At one point, Harris'scharacter even invokes Dirty Harry, but in reality the Clint Eastwoodfilm that most comes to mind is Unforgiven, especially given the film'sviolent conclusion, all the more unsettling because, against our betterjudgement, we can't help finding it cathartic.
Meanwhile, classicCronenberg themes come to the fore: problems of identity and perception, theuncontrollable nature of the savage Id, the thin barriers between normality andnightmare (the final act suggests an eXistenZ- like journey into dream),and above all, duality, as in Dead Ringers and The Fly. And inone or two brief but startling shots, Cronenberg's taste for gruesome specialeffects is more than apparent, bringing home the hard reality of the violencein question.
Mortensen and Bello benefitfrom rich support, notably from Harris's brisk, bullish menace and from WilliamHurt, whose suave, droll and utterly creepy eleventh-hour appearance is astartling break from form and arguably a career best.
Newcomer Holmes makes astrong impression too, as an ostensibly bland generic teen who turns outanything but. Visually the film is classy and sober, shot by Peter Suschitzywith an eye to clean, sometimes austerely formal execution.
Ruthlessly gripping andintellectually provocative and dense, A History Of Violence is a bold, freshleft-turn for Cronenberg, and - despite mixed boos and cheers at the press show- could be a popular front-runner for the Palme d'Or.
New Line Productions
New Line International
Josh Olson from the graphic novel by John Wagner, Vince Locke