Canadian helmer David Cronenberg works with some kind of deceptive touch in making A History of Violence a rich character-driven study.
The director of The Fly and Dead Ringers has a fine cast under his psycho-sexual subtle thriller, including Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, and Ed Harris.
In rural Indiana, Mortensen's Tom Stall is a hard-working nice-guy diner owner leading a pleasant life with lawyer wife Edie (Bello), teenage bullied son (Ashton Holmes), and young elementary-school-going daughter Sarah (Heidi Hayes).
Two thugs (Stephen McHattie, Greg Bryk) come into to his diner to rob it by first killing the waitress. But, Tom shows a penchant for making them pay dearly for their cruel intentions. And, the press is all over this local hero and Tom wants nothing of it.
The screenplay by Josh Olson from a graphic novel develops themes of identity and self-preservation as Philadelphia mobsters led by the brooding, scarred Carl Fogarty (Harris) start calling him "Joey Cusack". Tom says he is not this other person, but those around him begin to become skeptical, including Edie.
There's a precision to the way the storytelling and direction make the experience of the characters and their reactions palpable and visceral. A frame can contain something shocking and witty, as Cronenberg finds a caustic coherence in handling varying genres, including the coming-of-age, the gangster pic, and even the western. A raw truth emerges for the viewer in being led down a perilous path.
Mortensen impressively follows up the heroic Aragorn and Hidalgo with some of the restraint that Clint Eastwood endowed in Unforgiven. A word and gesture can change Tom forever and there's a modulation into what happens when what is held dear is suddenly removed. Bello (Assault on Precinct 13) has a fearless rapacious quality demonstrated in two explicit scenes and Edie connects with her man and the pain from what she may not realize.
Harris juices up the unrelenting Fogarty with shady glee and William Hurt shows up as the menacing Richie who Tom must come to terms with. The trajectory of the insecure Jack suggests a genetic predisposition as Holmes is sharp among veteran actors in conveying so much from within.
Some may question the motivations of Cronenberg in realizing his most mainstream work yet. A supple, artistic mind is at work with the escalation of physical brutality that creates the kind of pacing for a persuasive psychological effect. The cadence on all fronts has some mystery, twists, and terror that turns out to be an astonishing portrait that might seem elemental, but mind-blowing for adults, like a wire driven into one's eye.