Directors discussing human capacity for sex and violence are a dime a dozen. For more than 50 years, David Cronenberg has dissected it — often quite literally, creating weapons made of human bone or shoving handguns into tremulous, vaginal stomach slits. Of course, such unpredictably invasive anatomical moments are just one part of Cronenberg’s aggressive tradition. Even in his less fantastical work, he rarely separates sex from violence, poking and prodding to seek potentially perilous similarities in the chemical reactions caused by those acts. In honor of Cronenberg’s films, and his 80th birthday, Midwest Film Journal presents a monthlong retrospective on his work: Ew, David!

21st-century David Cronenberg has a distinctly different feel from the body-horror master’s previous 30 years of work. In fact — excluding last year’s Crimes of the Future — his more recent output has very little body horror at all. Larval fetuses, vaginal-looking videotape dispensers, heads exploding during psychic warfare, typewriters protruding from insect sacs … you’d be hardpressed to find any of these Cronenberg hallmarks in his post-1990s films. Compared to something like Videodrome, 2005’s A History of Violence feels like an episode of Happy Days given how relatable its central character initially appears (and its rural Indiana setting is in stark contrast to the brutalist metropolitan locales of the director’s most iconic work).

And in a way, A History of Violence is very much Cronenberg’s Happy Days — as much a parody of cinema’s idealized midwestern towns as it is an affectionate embrace of them. It’s also one of the best movies of the 2000s: a stellar crime thriller, brooding family drama and small-town satire that features career-highlight performances from Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris and the late William Hurt. Like he did in 1988’s Dead Ringers, Cronenberg turns his usual body-horror narrative inward here, focusing on the moral and psychological rot of a character rather than a physical one. 

Working from a screenplay by Josh Olson (whose previous credits were a handful of cheap direct-to-video actioners) and adapted from a graphic novel by John Wagner, A History of Violence has a premise that asks the question: “What if John Wick was kind of a creepy dude?” 

Mortensen plays Tom Stall, a man whose life is almost comically picturesque. He owns a diner in their small Indiana town and lives with his wife, Edie (Bello), and two kids, Jack (Ashton Holmes) and Sarah (Heidi Hayes). Tom and his wife still share a powerful emotional and physical attraction after years of marriage, and he’s an attentive and loving father to his young daughter and teenaged son. The small-town elements here are depicted in such broad fashion — the high-school bullies, quaint storefronts, the goofy locals who work at Stall’s Diner — that you know Cronenberg must be up to something. 

Tom’s existence turns quite complicated indeed when a couple of murderous thieves pop into his diner before closing one night, with the clear intention of killing everyone there. Miraculously, Tom takes care of both of them with brutal efficiency in our first glimpse of classic Cronenbergian violence. Naturally, the thug doesn’t simply get a quick bullet through the head; no, the bullet has to literally tear his face apart, leaving his cheek just a spurting flap of meat. 

Tom is immediately deemed a hero not only by the town but national news networks, and it turns out Tom’s nervous downplaying of all the attention isn’t from surviving such a traumatic event. Rather, he really doesn’t want to draw too much attention to himself. See, Tom Stall hasn’t always been Tom Stall. Years ago, he was a mob enforcer in Philadelphia by the name of Joey Cusack, someone who went off the grid entirely after leaving a slew of bodies in his wake. 

Upon rewatch, the reasoning behind a few odd details in Olson’s screenplay becomes apparent. At the beginning of the movie, Mortensen tells his wife Edie before going to work, “Maybe we can go make out at the drive-in tonight,” to which she responds, “Tom, there hasn’t been a drive-in here since the 1970s.” Similarly, one of the couple’s pre-coital rituals involves Edie wearing her high-school cheerleader outift. One might assume it’s the two of them reliving their wild and horny teenage past when it’s actually Joey imaginatively fetishizing what it must have been like growing up in small-town America. It’s an innocence Joey never had, one he’s desperately trying to reclaim in his life as Tom Stall.

That innocence dissipates once a one-eyed mafioso named Carl Fogarty (a wonderfully evil Harris) stops by Stall’s Diner and demands that Tom comes back with him to speak with Tom’s older brother, Richie, who’s now running things up in Philly. Fogarty has his own axe to grind, as Tom apparently gouged his eye out before skipping town a couple decades back. There’s no point spoiling how the conflict escalates from there, although it’s no surprise that we do eventually meet Richie (Hurt, in yet another one of the movie’s impeccable villain roles) and Tom’s family inevitably must reckon with his history of violence.  

Made only a few years after 9/11, it’s hard not to see this as Canadian Cronenberg commenting on American fears of the time – the notion that no matter how secluded and safe one feels, real-world evil has a way of creeping in. It makes sense Joey would want to start his new life as Tom in a place that seems stuck in time, a squeaky-clean Indiana town that feels completely inhospitable to violence. Of course, he eventually learns that isn’t true. 

However, too many movies of the aughts, from Hostel to The Dark Knight, are open to that post-9/11 interpretation, which has frankly grown tired by this point. This is far more compelling when it’s placed alongside the rest of Cronenberg’s filmography, a stark turning point in his career where the overt science-fiction elements of his previous work faded away. Here — unlike The Fly or Videodrome or Crash — we don’t see an ordinary person transformed by the perversities of the modern world. Instead, we have a corrupt man wearing the skin of something ordinary, only for that corruption to seep its way to the surface once again. A History of Violence may be more accessible and conventionally entertaining than most of Cronenberg’s work up to that point, but its ideas are no less troubling.