Director David Cronenberg (“Eastern Promises”) could have made this a tribute to gory excess, but instead it’s a celebration of impactful and powerful film-making.
Fresh off completing the immensely popular “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Viggo Mortensen was ready to embark on the next chapter in his career and after the uneven adventure, “Hildago,” needed a role that reminded audiences that beyond the dashing good looks and orc-slashing swordplay, he’s a pretty great actor as well.
He gets that perfect showcase role as Tom Stall, a laid back diner owner in quaint Millbrook, Indiana where everyone knows each other by name. In addition to serving up some good eats, he’s got the picture perfect family life. His wife, Edie (Maria Bello, “Grown Ups”), is still deeply in love with him; their son Jack (Ashton Holmes, “Revenge”) offers plenty of admiration without the typical teen attitude and their daughter Sara’s (Heidi Hayes) biggest concern are the “monsters” in the closet.
That idealistic life is threatened when two robbers attempt to holdup the diner, but Tom’s quick-thinking prevents a tragedy, prompting the local media to declare him a hero.
The incident help drum up business for the diner, but Tom isn’t sure what to make of a new patron, Carl Fogerty (Ed Harris in a subtle, but menacing performance), who claims that Tom isn’t the hometown hero he’s pretending to be.
Josh Olson’s screenplay smartly puts Bello in the audience’s shoes as she tries to make sense of everything and Bello, in one of her strongest performances, conveys all the apprehension, terror and disbelief necessary to make you start doubting Tom and the film starts slanting toward a dark mystery.
Even after the mystery is revealed, the film holds up on repeated viewings thanks to the strength of its cast, whom Cronenberg allows numerous scenes to play off against one another. Arguably the best face off comes when Mortensen encounters William Hurt’s crime lord Richie Cusack, an intense sequence that earned Hurt a Best Supporting Actor nomination.
Mortensen is tremendous as the man who has everything faced with the prospect of losing it all while Holmes shows amazing potential through his own minor story arc where Jack questions how he should handle a school bully.
Cronenberg expertly arranges all the characters past their breaking point, getting raw, emotional work out of his actors. They’re less characters, but more real people we’re getting a glimpse of in the midst of an especially challenging time in their lives.
Still, the violence is there and its repercussions are typically ugly beyond just showing how a man’s face looks after getting shot in the head point blank.
At 96 minutes, Cronenberg is amazingly efficient in his storytelling. This story easily could have been dragged out beyond two hours, but he paces it so effortlessly that every scene is essential while still giving the characters time to breathe.
The original source material was an independent comic book graphic novel written by John Wagner and Vince Locke, but you’d never consider this a comic book movie.
“A History of Violence” is a film you can’t pin down to one specific genre. It’s a love story, crime drama and mystery rolled into one exceptionally gripping effort.
Rating: 8 out of 10