In any five minutes of most David Cronenberg movies, you’ll find more fearless, intelligent comments about sex and violence than Hollywood is apt to attempt over five years.
A History of Violence, Cronenberg’s latest and easily his greatest, is stripped of any silly cartoonish impulses and explosively fires right into the heart of his old favorites, as well as his more recent philosophical mind-ticklers about reality and perception.
It’s one hell of a psychological thriller, piling on the claustrophobic discomfort of close-quarters confrontation and mounting dread at the madness to come. Constant ruminations on death — and not just through the graphic gore Cronenberg fans expect and get here — are wrapped up in the emotional tolls taken on an Indiana family unexpectedly rocked by a violent act.
The fictional small town of Millbrook, Ind. might as well be a Western’s expansive prairie and Tom Stall’s (Viggo Mortensen) small-town diner a dusty saloon. His establishment immediately takes on that air when two brutal serial murderers (Stephen McHattie, Greg Bryk) lay eyes on it.
Cronenberg actually starts the film with these two in a different town for an opening-credit sequence that’s gloriously unbroken by editing until the proper moment. It’s just the beginning of numerous, fascinating questions about the futility of violence. And Cronenberg, the last filmmaker who ever could be accused of pulling punches, follows it through to its disquieting, believable end.
The murderous duo unexpectedly meets its match when trying to rob Tom’s diner and massacre everyone inside. The family man’s swift reaction is a visceral one, and, perhaps for the first time ever in a Cronenberg movie, it shocks us as much as the characters in the story who witness it.
It’s because gunfire disrupts a life so normally “American,” it comes complete with warm French horns on the soundtrack. Tom’s wife, Edie (Maria Bello), is a successful small-town lawyer, his verbally hip, but physically meek, son Jack (Ashton Holmes) suffers the school bully and, though he’s not a native, the good people of Millbrook consider family man Tom one of their own.
But at the same time, things seem a little too perfect. There’s a sense of awkward overcompensation in Tom and Edie’s adventuresome sex life (that, per Cronenberg, features an act you don’t normally see in wide release).
TV attention to Tom’s heroics catches the good eye of Carl Fogaty (Ed Harris), a scarred mobster from Philly. Arriving in Millbrook with two goons, Carl claims Tom actually is Joey Cusack, a hotheaded former colleague who split town after ruining made-man Carl’s eyesight with a band of barbwire. Tom vehemently denies it, but Carl lingers to menace Tom’s family and exact revenge.
Safe to say, the movie has more than its share of twists, but the movie favors reactions, emotions and consequences over mere plotting. Dime a dozen are films with kids in peril; rare coins are those that so openly discuss the possibility of murder. Though not as overtly tragic as A Simple Plan, it has a similar domino effect of intimate destruction.
Mortensen is the perfect actor around whom to revolve this story. Just watch his eyes — conveying aw-shucks disbelief one minute, darting with slight hints of shiftiness in the next. He does an exceptional job of keeping us guessing the truth until we learn it in full.
A stellar supporting cast surrounds him. Bello is a brave actress in a thankfully complex role, and Harris is perfect as a cool, collected psychopath. William Hurt arrives in a late-movie part that’s his best in years. Not only is he the perfect vessel for some perfectly dark humor, Hurt also asks Mortensen the film’s most integral, intriguing question.
Yet another remarkably great film of 2005, History goes wordless in its brilliant final moments to question the satisfaction and ramifications of its characters’ bloodlusts. Like many Cronenberg movies, it demands discussion about its ideas after the credits have rolled. After this masterpiece, the conversation definitely will not include the silly parts he could have left out.