Flesh ripped off, a broken jaw shudders uncontrollably as it oozes blood. Punches repeatedly, a nose is split open and literally panned flat. Bullets fly. Goons die. Welcome home. David Cronenberg: we've missed you. After the perverse Crash, the virtual eXistenZ and the schizophrenic Spider, the Canadian 'baron of blood' is back doing what he does best: body horror. At first glance, his latest film, A History of Violence, feels like the Cronenberg of old. The man that made a head explode in Scanners, that gave James Woods a letterbox stomach in Videodrome and then watched Jeff Goldblum's genitals decompose in The Fly is once again revelling in the repellant.
Yet while the film may be a nod to his enduring fascination with gore, A History of Violence is as serious as they come for Cronenberg. A trenchant study of the repercussions of brutality upon the nuclear family, it tells the story of Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), a small-town Indiana diner owner blessed with two children and a beautiful lawyer wife (Maria Bello). In his quiet way, he's living out an idyllic version of the American Dream - until one day, he is forced to shoot dead two assailants who raid his restaurant. Declared a hero by the local media, Stall's newfound fame brings him more than he bargained for. Notably, a visit from a scar-faced mobster (Ed Harris), hinting that Tom has a secret violent past in Philadelphia that he has long since left behind.
With Josh Olson's script based on the graphic novel by Judge Dredd creator John Wagner and Vince Locke, it's surprising to learn that Cronenberg had no idea of the source before he embarked on the project. 'No one told me that it was based on a graphic novel,' he says, when we meet in Cannes, where the film received its world premiere. 'Normally, it would say on the front of the script, but it didn't. It just said 'Script by Josh Olson.' So I thought it was an original script. By the time I learned it wasn't, he and I had done re-writing and it had been going in a particular direction. I read the graphic novel, and I thought we were so far away from that, that there was nothing really in there to take. Unlike Sin City, I think we went completely the opposite way. Being faithful to a graphic novel was not my goal.'
Shot by Peter Suschitzky, Cronenberg's regular DP since 1988's Dead Ringers, while the film refuses to emulate the style of Locke's drawings, in the way Robert Rodriguez reproduced Frank Miller's work for Sin City, it doesn't shirk when it comes to replicating the violence. No stranger to controversy, after Crash was crucified in the British press and banned for several months for its explicit content, Cronenberg has come armed to the teeth, ready to defend his film for the bloody images it contains.
'If I left those out, do you think it would be better?' counters the 62-year-old Toronto native. 'In fact, those shots are very quick. But can you say it's better not to show the consequences of that violence? The idea is to say that this violence is real. It has an impact on a human body that is not very pleasant. This is not a kung-fu fantasy. This is not a retro '70s martial arts movie. This is showing that violence is very nasty, very brutal, very quick, very unpredictable and has horrific consequences.'
Not unexpectedly, when questioned on the same subject, the cast has come well-prepared with ready-packed answers. 'This movie shows there are lots of different kinds of violence,' says the ever-elusive Mortensen. 'There are certain dialogue scenes, which are very violent. Violence manifests itself in many ways, and it's usually an impulsive, easy way out, instead of having a communication. Violence is, in a way, the cutting off of communication.'
It's also passed down from father to son it seems, as newcomer Ashton Holmes, who plays Tom's increasingly savage teenage offspring Jack, notes. 'I think because Jack witnessed violence in his father, it very quickly becomes very familiar to him, and takes over him, 'he says. 'It's almost like this innate quality that he recognises.'
As Mortensen points out, the most violent moment - one that will cause Daily Mail readers to put pen to paper in their droves - is a brutal sex scene between Tom and his wife on the stairs, a torrid expression of both repulsion and desire. 'Sex is very complicated,' muses Cronenberg. 'It reveals many things that are surprising about yourself. The violence is part of the sexuality. It's very possible, maybe inevitable, that violence is incorporated into sexuality. And also there is a sexual element in violence. There is a bizarrely sexual element in state executions, for example - which no one who is in favour of the death penalty wants to talk about. But there is a weird perverse sexuality involved in executing somebody. It's a long, difficult subject - but sex and violence do seem to go together very well.' Think back to Jeremy Irons' twin gynaecologists in Dead Ringers and you will see what he means.
A scene that took two days to shoot on two different sets. Cronenberg - a man infamous for showing a man sexually penetrating a leg-wound in Crash - admits movie sex is hard to get right. 'It's not like real sex,' he smiles. 'It's harder than real sex! Maria was very bruised afterwards. The stairs were hard and there was no way she could have padding. At one point, the stunt coordinator got a call for stunt pads. He said, 'For a sex scene? No one has ever asked for protective pads for a sex scene before!'' As it was, the real bumps Bello suffered gave Cronenberg the idea to show the damage her character suffers on screen. 'My whole back was torn up - a bloody, scabby back,' she says. 'I just remember walking around those days in a haze. This was so brutal and psychological, spiritual and emotional - rather than physical. It was a hard place to go.'
If superficially the film is comparable to The Dead Zone, Cronenberg's 1983 adaptation of Stephen King's novel that similarly boasted an all-American cast, setting and source, it returns the director to the theme of fractured identity more recently explored in Spider. 'I think every morning, you wake up and have to recreate yourself and remember who you are, assemble that person,' says Cronenberg. 'I think it's very possible to become someone else - by force of will you can.' While echoing his own earlier work, the film also bears resemblance to the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang and particularly Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs - in which Dustin Hoffmann was forced to get medieval with a bear-trap on a couple of home-invaders.
Cronenberg admits he also may just have made his first western. 'I knew that right from the beginning, that there was an epic American western mythology involved in this story of a man who has to use violence to defend his house and family against men with guns. This is a classic American scenario, both in history and cinema.'
With all this bloodshed, it seems appropriate that Cronenberg is still tied to Painkillers for his next project, with Nicholas Cage still a possible cast member. Based on French artist Ordan's 'treatise on L'Art charnal', a unique approach which utilises her body for artistic purposes, it remains to be seen just how the main with a history of violence (in the cinema, at least) will tackle it. As far as Cronenberg reckons, he's a pussycat. 'There are directors who shout and scream and I don't do that,' he says. 'I'm very collaborative and gentle.' Yeah, right.