Living the American dream can take many forms: earning an honest wage, creating a loving family or attaining fame. The main character in A History of Violence achieves all three.
Loosely based on the graphic novel of the same name, the David Cronenberg-directed film revolves around Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), a quiet, small town guy who is suddenly thrust into the spotlight when he kills two men threatening his peaceful diner. Drawn by his notoriety, a group of strangers come to town declaring that Tom is neither gentle nor the man he claims to be.
Cronenberg, the usual purveyor of twisted, disturbing fare such as Naked Lunch and Crash (1996), was fascinated by the idea of examining iconic Americana. "[The movie] has to do with America's mythology of itself - the small perfect town where everybody's friendly and happy and what that really entails," he says.
"It's interesting and disturbing, especially seen through Cronenberg's eyes," adds Mortensen, "which are relentlessly looking for what's underneath the layer of civility that we all try to behave ourselves with."
With a name like History of Violence, the film naturally has its share of brutality that Cronenberg and his star embraced in a practical manner, just like the motives in the film. The slayings - whether for power, pride or self-defense - are chilling and almost casual in their swiftness.
"To these guys, violence is just business," explains Cronenberg. "Once you get it done, you go on to the next thing. So that's why in the movie, the violence is portrayed that way."
Lord of the Rings veteran Mortensen was no stranger to performing fight scenes, and trained to make them straightforward and believable.
"We looked at self-defense courses and tapes and talked with people. It is very matter-of-fact, very direct and very efficient, just like the storytelling," says the actor. "It's not about a lot of wasted effort. It's about getting as close as you can to a person as quickly as possible and hurting them as much as you can as quickly as possible."
Shortly after Tom's act of heroism, his teenaged son Jack, played by newcomer Ashton Holmes, has his own taste of violence. Tired of always talking his way out of confrontations with the school bully, Jack finally decides to use his fists instead of words.
"We see that the kid is a pretty good politician at first. He can talk his way out of a jam," says Cronenberg. "And even in the second instance he's trying to walk away. [But] at that moment he decides maybe he too could be a bit of a celebrity on his own level [like his father] by committing some violence on this guy. It's a choice he makes."
And like the old saying about love and war, the film's savagery isn't only contained in the fight scenes, but also between Tom and his wife Edie (The Cooler's Maria Bello). Cronenberg contrasts an earlier, affectionate love scene with a brutal, rough sex scene that takes place on the stairs after Edie tries to reconcile herself to Tom's talent for violence.
"There's something about [that side of Tom] that she finds attractive. And then, the fact that she finds that attractive repulses her about herself," says the director. "It could be a rape to begin with, but then it's not because it shifts in tone and becomes something else.
"There's a hopeful aspect to it too because it's obvious that she can relate to this [husband/savage] hybrid, sexually at least, emotionally. Maybe that means that in the end of the movie, there's a way that she could continue to live with him even though he's got blood on his hands."
Although Cronenberg painstakingly re-creates his bit of Americana with all its folksy trappings, Mortensen cautions the audience not to draw any conclusions about America's celebration of violence.
"America is documented as being a gun-toting, Wild West kind of place compared to a lot of countries, but it's not a particularly American thing. You can't limit it that way," says the actor. "The more specific you are - in terms of this takes place in a specific rural community, in this specific country, a family with a specific name and so forth - the more universal it can be."