Dwindling box-office returns mean moviemakers with unique and challenging voices are finding it harder to get their visions on to the screen. When Canadian David Cronenberg made Spider, starring Ralph Fiennes as a mentally ill loner in 1950s London, for instance, the money kept disappearing. It was agony, says the outre auteur. To avoid more pain, he climbed into bed with US studio New Line Cinema for his follow-up, A History of Violence. But if that sounds as if Cronenberg compromised his artistic autonomy for a foothold in the marketplace, the film says otherwise.
Despite hoovering up critics' awards in the US, A History of Violencehas been dubbed Cronenberg lite by some hardcore fans; however, it is only ostensibly mainstream. Though more accessible than some of his previous films, it is, in fact, a subversive and provocative work whose simple plot belies complex subtexts and a familiarly Cronenbergian fascination with themes such as identity, transformation and sex.
In it, the past appears to catch up with Viggo Mortensen's mild-mannered diner owner, Tom Stall, when he dramatically slaughters two thugs who are threatening his customers. Overnight he becomes a reluctant hero and media celebrity. His notoriety draws the attention of a scar-faced hoodlum (Ed Harris) who claims that Stall is actually a sadistic killer with a blood-drenched past.
The Stalls' Rockwellian midwestern idyll disintegrates: Tom changes into a creature of a different kind and his timid son takes a leaf out of dad's book and beats a school bully to a grisly pulp. Mum is shocked to discover dark sexual undercurrents within herself.
Before signing on, Mortensen wanted to know why Cronenberg was making the film. "I thought this was a script that could be, in the hands of someone like him, a very interesting movie, or it could be a very uninteresting movie, maybe at the most an exploitation movie with some graphic violence, and so what?" he says. "But because he is truly interested in human behaviour and in the uncomfortable things that we experience as an audience when people reveal themselves in different ways, I felt this could be very interesting, and it turned out to be that way."
Stall's sudden elevation to celebrity rang bells with Mortensen, who had been working steadily in movies for 22 years, sometimes making a living, sometimes not, when his life was turned upside down by the role of Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings. A private man, he finds some of the effects of fame unwelcome.
"It wasn't like I was thinking, 'I wish I was more famous; I wish people would stop me on the street.' I was just doing my job. After The Lord of the Rings, suddenly it was different.
"If I'm in a small town in Spain [where he has been filming the historical epic Alatriste], now I think: 'Do I really want to go outside? Do I really need to get the newspaper now or do I wait until two in the morning?'"
He is not ungrateful for the attention, just ambivalent. "On the one hand it's an honour and it's nice that people like your work," he concedes. "But on the other hand it's obviously an invasion of your privacy. So it's weird."
And despite its accessibility, so is A History of Violence. Cronenberg makes the violence quick, brutal and gruesome, just like in real life, and for an American movie the sex is surprisingly frank and ambiguous. And what are we to make of that title? Whose history of violence is the film talking about? Tom's? Mankind's? Is the film specifically a comment on America's fascination with violence?
"All those levels are in there," says Cronenberg, "take it as you will." Mortensen says: "I think it is the easy way out for a journalist - it's up to you, you can do whatever you want - to say this is about America."
"All artists," pitches in Cronenberg, "want to believe that their work has universal significance, and in order to be universal, you have to be specific.
"Having said that, it is specifically about a mythology of America, which is a western mythology, which is also a cinema mythology, of a man standing alone, defending his family with a gun against other men with guns. And that's very, very American.
"One could say that the Bush administration has adopted that mythology as its foreign policy. You know, 'We were attacked and so anything we do to defend ourselves is justified.'" He pauses. "It's a very dangerous thing to base your foreign policy on old movies. So to that extent it is a criticism of America now. But at the same time violence is a universal human fact, and a very complex one."
Superficially, the film is a departure for Cronenberg, but closer inspection reveals old preoccupations, such as a character wrestling with his identity, and the notion of transformation. Tom may be the quiet man he claims to be, but this does not rule out also being the vicious killer the men from Philadelphia say he is. Identity, believes Cronenberg, is not, like the colour of our eyes, a product of genetics, but something we determine for ourselves.
People in the US are recreating themselves all the time, so the setting for A History of Violence could not be more apt. But, as Cronenberg says, redefining oneself is not easy.
"There is a lot of will involved in the creation of an identity, and in Spider I was examining what happens when there is not the will to hold the identity together. But I do think, though, that it is possible to become somebody else. Really, you can become someone else through force of will, but it is difficult.
"I guess you have to see how much you value the truth," he says. "If you are in a relationship with someone who is very intense, and even after 20 years you don't know them, do you want to know them? Do you want to have a relationship based on a true understanding of every aspect of that person?
"That could be a very exciting thing and a more complete and complex thing, but maybe not so comfortable. But comfort is only valuable to a certain extent, you know? It's the same in art. You want comfort but you don't want too much comfort."
Cronenberg, of course, has never opted for comfort. Not even when he makes a film that looks like his version of a mainstream movie. And he does not intend to change. But what drives this soft-spoken, seemingly normal man to make films that feature sex and car wrecks (Crash), gynaecological horror (Dead Ringers) and exploding heads (Scanners)?
"You make the movie to find out why you wanted to make the movie," he says. "You really don't know at the beginning everything about it: what attracts you to it, why you wanted to make it. Part of the compulsion to finish it through all the difficulties is that you want to find out what it was that you were doing, why it was that you were doing this in the first place."