"Violence is as American as cherry pie," H. Rap Brown famously said. And although I might have gone with apple pie, the point is that our country has what David Cronenberg, in his thought-provoking new film, calls A History of Violence. Like fish in water, we're swimming in the stuff, on screen and off. And not only do we not quite notice it around us, we might not be able to survive without it. It thrills us. It chills us. It completes us.
Set in the heart of the heartland, a small town where everybody expects to see you in church on Sunday, A History of Violence is like a Norman Rockwell painting smeared with graffiti. Viggo Mortensen, in a beautifully layered performance, is Tom Stall, who runs the local diner. With his attractive wife (Maria Bello), who's a lawyer, and his picture-perfect kids (Ashton Holmes and Heidi Hayes), Tom might have been content to spend the rest of his life pouring refills if two of his customers hadn't turned out to be serial killers.
Cronenberg has already introduced us to these guys in an opening sequence that takes its sweet time, like blood oozing from a wound. But the scene in the diner is over almost before it's begun, Tom displaying skills perhaps even he didn't know he had. And suddenly he's a hero, which brings on the media but also a visit from a gentleman (Ed Harris) who claims to have known Tom back in Philadelphia, where he was supposedly an enforcer for the Mob. Tom not only denies this but seems genuinely confused by what the guy's talking about.
With half his face hideously scarred, Harris brings a sadistic glee to this glorified cartoon character. And the whole movie's like that, schizophrenically split between It's a Wonderful Life and Blue Velvet. "I'm the luckiest son of a bitch in the world," Tom says to his wife in an early scene, after they've just spruced up their sex life with a cheerleading outfit. And in a script where every single word counts, rippling outward in concentric circles, it's that "son of a bitch" that lingers in our minds, removing yet another shadow of doubt.
With his icy blue eyes and heroic chin (featuring the deepest dimple this side of Kirk Douglas), Mortensen has the ability to go either way, warm-hearted family man or cold-blooded killer. And he adds to that a kind of blankness that reads as reticence. But there are amazing things going on beneath the surface. When Tom's son, inspired by his father, begins his own history of violence, Tom's face reveals a kaleidoscopic blend of emotions: disgust, anger, pride, respect, pity, sorrow, love.
And bravo to Cronenberg for revealing the disgust, anger, pride, respect, pity, sorrow and love that violence inspires in the rest of us.