Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) has one of those movie names, both delicately abstract and oppressively symbolic. And when he first appears in A History of Violence, he has what seems ideal, peaceful life: he runs a popular diner in sleepy-town Millbrook, Indiana, loves his wife Edie (Maria Bello) and their two kids, six-year-old Sarah (Heidi Hayes) and adolescent Jack (Ashton Holmes), and wears flannel shirts and jeans.
And then comes the violence. Incarnated at first by a pair of drifter killers (Stephen McHattie and Greg Bryk), it explodes within minutes of their arrival in town. You know they’re bringing trouble, because David Cronenberg’s remarkably linear film opens on their slaughter of a motel staff, or more precisely, the aftermath of same. You don’t see the violence, you just see the effects, ugly, sad, bereft — bloody bodies sprawled awkwardly in the office.
You don’t see these cigarette-dangling tough guys for some minutes, and it’s as if the movie’s forgotten about them. Indeed, their drive into Millbrook seems almost incidental, except for the fact that their car almost hits that of a couple of high school punks you’ve seen pick on Jack. As these two pairs of bullies gaze at one another in a moment’s passing, your view changes: suddenly the kids look puny and silly, not nearly so alarming as they appeared in a locker room just a couple of scenes back, through Jack’s eyes.
The film — based on John Wagner and Vince Locke’s graphic novel — is threaded through with such shifts in perspective and focus. Moving forward with a deliberate, sometimes difficult slowness, it features sets and performances as such, not quite real, more emblems than lived in experiences. Each moment seems equally strange, fragile and vaguely artificial. This even as Tom’s earnestness and Edie’s playfulness appear of a piece, their affection for one another cozy and performative: she arranges for the kids to be off to friends’ one night so she can seduce her husband in a way that makes up for their lack of a teenage romance. She treats him to a show, dressed in a cheerleader’s costume. When he performs cunnilingus, the image is not cheap, but gentle and passionate.
The collapse of their genuine-seeming domestic serenity begins when Tom is confronted by the killers. For reasons known only to them, they swagger into the diner at closing time one evening, demanding coffee and looking for trouble. When it appears certain they mean to murder an exceptionally helpless-looking victim, Tom reveals an unexpected aspect: he can kick ass. Using a mix of bone-breaking martial arts and expert shooting and stabbing, he takes out the killers in mere minutes, startling his coworkers and customers and, within hours, garnering the awe of his neighbors and the glare of tabloidy media. Left with a knife-wounded leg (which causes him to limp for the rest of the film, marking his vulnerability), Tom and Edie try to maintain their previous existence but, as they inhabit a Cronenberg movie, this is impossible.
The sheer physicality of Tom’s initial disruption marks its severity. As in all of Cronenberg’s work, corporeality and character are intensely connected, at once definitive and dislocating. The difference between Tom’s placid exterior and his frankly astounding display of lethal resources signals not only that he might have a shady past unknown to sweet Edie-and-the-kids, but also that this movie is not going to be anything like what it seemed.
But the shift in terms is not only a function of Tom’s sudden celebrity or the exposure of his ferocious expertise. History here breaks open into a meditation not only on sensationalism and violence, but also, and more emphatically, on identity and masculinity, as these notions are entangled in U.S. self-puffing mythology. In the wake of the fight, Irish mobster Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) rolls into town, attended by requisite thugs, claiming that he recognizes Tom as “Joey,” a brutal killer from back in the old days in Philadelphia; not incidentally, Joey left Carl blind in one eye, with a badly scarred face. No matter Tom’s protestations that he’s only simple working man Tom Stall, Carl means to settle a score.
The plot problem has to do with this re-identification: is Tom lying? Is Carl mistaken? And how else to explain Tom’s killer skills? Still, Edie, the kids, and their good friend Sam the sheriff (Peter MacNeill) want to believe Tom’s assertions that he is Tom, not Joey, that he is not a monster, but a humble man, that his story is true, not a lie. “My husband does not know you,” Edie tells Carl. Oh, purrs the gangster, “He knows me intimately,” that is, as well as he knows Edie. This is the rub: all stories are lies, all pasts are remembered subjectively, and all hopes for the future are premised on fictions. Even when A History of Violence provides some specifics regarding Tom-or-Joey’s own history, interpretations remain unfixed. How he has come to be the character in the film’s present is as much a result of Edie and their family’s desires as his own self-invention, or even Carl and company’s reconstruction.
More troubling, perhaps, is the inflection of the past on the film’s present. For while Tom works to resolve his own identity, his son Jack is only beginning to understand his own. Finding that his own past might be a collection of lies, the boy is also faced with daily and increased bullying at school. His response to this provocation, as well as his response to Carl’s appearance at his family’s home, suggests a strange and implacable genetic capacity for violence. But again, even this seeming conclusion is incomplete and changeable, as this turn in Jack has as much to do with American mythologies of violence and masculinity as it does with any possible biology, even within the movie’s broadly metaphorical structures.
This slippage between myth and realism, or maybe expectation and consummation, is precisely the genius of A History of Violence. While it’s easy to be thrilled by the hard-hitting and frequently explosive action (fantastic action-movie action), the film also asks you to step back and contemplate the ideals, costs, and bodies in play. Tom’s mutation — seemingly before your eyes — into a killer is surely startling. And Edie’s struggle to believe him and also to protect her children is surely poignant (Bello is stunning). But the more crucial point has to do with what you want to see: a revenge picture, a familial resolution, a heroic triumph, a just punishment, or maybe some hysterical combination of all. If A History of Violence is, to some extent, a history of U.S. excesses and self-images, it is also a critique of unself-conscious consumption of same.