Think David Cronenberg and one tends to envisage exploding heads and alarming gynaecological equipment, the merging of metal and flesh. This after all is Hollywood’s ‘body horror’ master, the man who gave us Jeff Goldblum spewing digestive juices in The Fly, James Woods rummaging about in the oddly vaginal cavity that’s developing in his own abdomen in Videodrome and those icky 70s sex worms from Shivers.
Superficially A History Of Violence feels very un-Cronenberg, no-one grows anything from anyplace they shouldn’t for a start. Small-town family man Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) leads a simple but happy, all-American life. He has an attractive, intelligent wife (Maria Bello), a couple of kids and owns the local diner.
This cosy existence is brutally disrupted one night when two men attempt to hold-up the diner. Realising they intend to harm his employees, Tom despatches them in a surprisingly efficient manner, becoming a local media star as a result.
A couple of days later a black-suited, one-eyed stranger (a creepy Ed Harris) shows up in town having seen Tom’s picture on the news. He claims Tom is not Tom but mobster Joey Cusack, the man responsible for messing up his face with a piece of barbed wire, who disappeared some years ago. Naturally Tom is horrified by this accusation; he denies everything but Harris is persistent and Tom is forced to take extreme steps to protect his family.
This is the point where the film starts to come apart. While A History Of Violence maintains a level of ambiguity, it manages to be a compelling watch despite the odd duff line of dialogue and some laughably wooden child acting from the Stalls’ blonde moppet of daughter (where’s Dakota Fanning when you need her?)
However once it becomes clear that Tom and Joey may well be the same man things quickly crumble. I think the problem lies in those five foreboding words that appear in the opening credits: “based on the graphic novel.” That’s not automatically a recipe for heavy-handedness (think of the delightfully mordent Ghostworld or American Splendor) but Violence is hampered by a rather leaden script and Cronenberg’s naturalistic approach doesn’t sit well with scenarios that never fully shake off their comic book roots.
The film survives on its central performances. LOTR’s Mortensen is excellent as Tom, a man who truly believes his own deception; you can see the conflict going on within him. Maria Bello also does good work as Tom’s wife, struggling to come to terms with the fact she has no real idea who the man she married really is. As does Ashton Holmes as Jack Stall, the son who deflects difficult situations with humour but may well have inherited his father’s facility with his fists. William Hurt’s brief turn as a drawly Don Corleone figure is also quite amusing but perhaps would have benefited from being a little more sinister.
What really disappoints is the lack of backstory, the lack of any explanation of why Tom/Joey opted to change his life in such a dramatic fashion. The denouement fails to satisfy on a number of levels, criminally short on suspense it offers only more of what the automated woman on the Odeon information line called “scenes of bloody violence.”
Cronenberg has always been a director who’s ploughed his own dark line, excavating his obsessions on the screen, but only in a few scenes (an unsettling sexual encounter in a stairwell, the aforementioned “bloody violence”) does he really stamp his mark on this film. Ultimately, this is strange and patchy affair that promises much but fails to deliver.