(Gala) USA, 95 minutes
Written by: Josh Olson, based on the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke
Directed by: David Cronenberg
Cast: Viggo Mortenson, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, William Hurt, Stephen McHattie
Don't let the TV spots and bus shelter ads fool you: David Cronenberg's latest might be considered "mainstream" if compared to the likes of his surreal (and downright bonkers) "Naked Lunch" or "Crash" adaptations, but "A History Of Violence" is a far cry from The Rock brandishing a two-by-four. Somewhat misleading marketed as the Canuck auteur's response to "Straw Dogs", "History" is a hard one to classify: alternately a domestic drama, a rousing revenge yarn, and a sly black comedy, it'll be sure to polarize audiences impatient with having their sensibilities toyed with--to the point of betrayal. But for fans of the director's every-evolving body of work (now spanning four decades!), this loose adaptation of the John Wagner/Vincent Locke graphic novel will fit comfortably amongst "The Brood", "The Fly", and "Dead Ringers" as his latest wrenching exploration of biology vs. destiny. Here, the parasite isn't a mutation or a monster or even a personality disorder--it's the very idea of violence itself as a neo-viral condition.
As with most Cronenberg chillers, it begins in a banal, unremarkable reality: Tom Stall (Mortensen) lives a modest existence with his wife Edie (Bello), teenage son Jack (Ashton Holmes) and young daughter Sarah (Heidi Hayes) in Millbrook, Indiana (in actuality, the town of Millbrook, Ontario) where he runs the local greasy spoon. When two thugs attempt to rob the diner, Tom lashes back with an almost instinctual and precise savagery and he immediately becomes a local hero. Tom resists his newfound infamy, but the media coverage attracts the attention of the malignant gangster Fogarty (Harris), who slithers into town with his henchmen and insists that not only does he know Tom--as "Joey"-- from a shared and mysterious past--in "Philly"--but that they have unfinished business.
Tom's wife and children gradually begin to doubt his pleas that Fogarty is lying, and soon Edie and Jack find their own tempers flaring and their more rational natures stripped away--after all, how could they love a man who wasn't "real"? Does "Joey" really exist? If so, does he still live within "Tom"? And which one is the alter ego? A trip to Philadelphia and an encounter with the mysterious Richie Cusack (Hurt) will square Tom's score with Fogarty, but the Stall family will never be the same...
The tone might be a bit too arch and ironic in parts to be truly haunting ala "Taxi Driver", but Cronenberg is clearly revelling in punishing us for our responses. The climax is arguably as funny as it is horrible, and the teenage son's brutal reprisal against his high school bullies will initially arouse cheers that will quickly turn to embarrassed regret (well, let's hope--some within the premiere's audience had me looking over my shoulder on the way out). Over the years, Cronenberg has become a masterful director of unpredictable and nuanced performances--the cast here, from Mortenson's perfectly honed "aw shucks" demeanour masking a Mr. Hyde, to Bello's earthy grace, to Harris' more ghoulish theatricality, are pitch perfect for the story's disquieting undulations. All perfectly realized against Carol Spier's evocative environments and Peter Suschitzky's unflinching lens, as usual.
"A History Of Violence" is a more subversive and complex film than it may appear while actually watching it--it's short and traditionally-structured and could've been a lyrical John Ford parable in another time and genre. Sure, the gruesome inserts will spook you--but it's the realization of how easily most of us could surrender communication, decorum, loyalty, and empathy for our own personal survival at any and all costs that will crawl inside and stay there--just like those little slugs in "Shivers". And if not--well, then, one way or another, Cronenberg has proven his point.