Apart from some effective detail work with classical American cinema archetypes that makes parts of it play like a modern-day Western, “A History of Violence” is a surprisingly conventional film from the normally more adventurously mind-bending David Cronenberg. A tale of a prototypically normal Middle American family put to the test by crime and a disruption of its very identity, pic is dominated by familiar themes hyped by an extra dash of hot sex and graphic violence. But lack of depth, complexity or strangeness make this a relatively routine entry for the director, indicating moderate B.O. prospects for New Line upon planned Sept. 30 release after fest rounds.
Adapted by Josh Olson from a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke, “Violence” reminds of another film with a similar source, “Road to Perdition,” due to the central role of Irish-American gangsters. Buffs may also find elements of “Out of the Past,” “Straw Dogs,” “The Big Heat” and countless sagebrush dramas in the story and its treatment.
Westerns are most certainly drawn to mind by the impressive long opening take, which shows two bad guys (Stephen McHattie and Greg Bryk) emerging from a motel and speaking in the most taciturn manner about their plans. Leaving three dead bodies in their wake, the two take off for their next destination.
This happens to be Millbrook, Ind., a warm, picture perfect burg where great-looking couple Tom and Edie Stall (Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello) live with their high school-age son Jack (Ashton Holmes) and little daughter Sarah (Heidi Hayes).
First scene that doesn’t ring quite right is one in which Jack is hassled by a jerky jock for having made a routine catch of a fly ball the jock hit in a gym class baseball game. What did the bully expect him to do, drop the ball on purpose?
That Tom and Edie still have the hots for one another is friskily demonstrated in a raunchy scene in which they play teenager, with Edie donning a cheerleader’s outfit as a preliminary.
But life as they know it comes to an end with the arrival of the baddies. Entering the diner Tom runs, one guy pulls out a gun while the other begins to rough up a waitress. Thinking fast, Tom tosses a hot coffee pot on the first man, grabs his gun and shoots both of them, while sustaining just a stab in the foot himself.
Tom is turned into a local hero, something this modest man of few words disdains. “Are you as sick of hearing about me as I am?,” he asks his wife after seeing his mug all over TV.
But it turns out Tom may have reasons of his own for not wanting any publicity. A city slicker who talks thuggish and has one bad eye and heavy facial scars, Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris), shortly turns up with two goons at the diner and starts talking to Tom as if he knows him, calling him by the name Joey Cusack and reminding him of the old days in Philly.
Tom says he’s not named Joey and has never been to Philly, but Carl continues to dog the family, following Edie and her daughter to a mall and finally showing up at the Stalls’ remote home to insist that Tom come with him.
How this gets resolved out-does the diner scene in surprising violence and turns the rest of the film down a track that deals, although not in particularly interesting ways, with identity and family rifts, and leads to yet one more major, and bloody, stand-off.
Without knowing who made the film, one could say it’s a very well crafted, slightly idiosyncratic look at some traditional American themes regarding the sanctity of family and the undercurrents beneath the surface people don’t often like to disturb. But coming from Cronenberg, the question arises: Is that all there is? There’s just not that much going on here, and what there is seems relatively ordinary, both on the domestic and gangster fronts.
Mortensen is solid and Gary Cooperish without revealing a great deal, while Bello goes considerably further to make tangible the love and the anguish Edie experiences. Harris and William Hurt, the latter as a mobster who turns up late in the proceedings, come out firing on all cylinders in very juicy turns.
Shot, as it happens, in Millbrook, Ontario, Canada, but looking for all the world like a south-of-the-border town, pic is well appointed in all departments except for the somewhat too insistent score by Howard Shore.