© New Line Productions Inc.
David Cronenberg has never settled comfortably into a single pigeonhole. When he was hailed 'the king of venereal horror' on the strength of Shivers and The Brood, he slipped out Fast Company, a little drama about one of his private enthusiasms, drag-racing. After Videodrome took him as far into his own head as any North American filmmaker has ever gone, he delivered a solid, professional, TV-safe Stephen King adaptation, The Dead Zone. In recent years, Cronenberg has moved away from exploring his own visions (except in the underrated eXistenZ) and taken to mind-melding with authors as diverse as William Burroughs (Naked Lunch), J. G. Ballard (Crash) and Patrick McGrath (Spider). He even came close to signing up for Basic Instinct 2, and is still attached to Martin Amis' London Fields.
A History Of Violence - adapted from a comic book by John Wagner and Vince Locke (though Cronenberg didn't know that when he read Josh Olsen's script) - continues to show the near-icy control that Cronenberg exerts when directing other people's material, but it also takes him into new genre territory. Most reviewers have seen the film as his contribution to the gangster movie, vaguely in competition with Road To Perdition (another graphic novel on film), but actually it's the nearest thing we're likely to get to a David Cronenberg Western. The hook is reminiscent of an obscure Fred MacMurray picture called At Gunpoint (a storekeeper is unexpectedly heroic in foiling a hold-up and becomes a target for the territory's badmen) and the protagonist has exactly the sort of backstory (a man of violence has settled down but is forced to strap on his guns again) that Anthony Mann always used in classic 1950s oaters with James Stewart (Bend Of The River) or Gary Cooper (Man Of The West), and which served Clint Eastwood for a meditation on his own violent screen history, Unforgiven.
History opens with muted horror as two bad guys (underplayed by Stephen McHattie and Greg Bryk) leave a motel after a massacre and head on down the road. If they were on horses, you'd get the picture quicker: these aren't gangsters, like the picture's main villains, but outlaws, roaming the land as predators, the sort of immediate trouble that makes you reach for a gun rather than call the cops. Then some time is taken in establishing the world of Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), who runs a diner in Millbrook, Indiana, and has a regular family life with still-frisky wife Edie (Maria Bello) and two kids. The hatless bad hats drift into Millbrook and show up in the diner, intent on robbery and mass murder - prompting Tom to click into action mode, using hot coffee and one of the robbers' guns to become 'an American hero'. Indeed, Mortensen, one of the few Danes who can get away with a cowboy hat (in Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III and Hidalgo), looks so much like a man of the Golden West, it's a wonder he isn't attached to remakes of everything from High Noon to Carry On Cowboy.
In the wake of Tom's heroic stand, which attracts media attention, another very bad man - one-eyed Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) - shows up in town, spooking the fatherly local sheriff. The plot hinge is that Carl thinks Tom is a missing Philadelphia hood named Joey Cusack and circumstances blur the hero's settled identity - but we're still in John Ford/Sergio Leone territory as Tom has to use more ultra-violent skills to protect his isolated homestead, not from renegade Apaches but from Fogarty and his revenge-seeking goons. Mortensen, sincerely credible as the nice guy, also works as the killer, in brief, shocking, devastatingly functional acts of violence which are the reverse of the glorified images of professional thugs in many films (think of all those cool hit men in Asian movies), while Bello subtly plays the repulsion, mixed feelings and suppressed excitement at having a new, dangerous man in her life.
For such a classically shot, unshowily played picture, there's a great deal going on here, and much of it isn't comfortable, in that it directly addresses the audience's involvement with the two great macho gun-toting archetypes of Hollywood: the cowboy and the gangster. The Academy has overlooked outstanding work from Cronenberg and Mortensen (remember Jeremy Irons winning an Oscar for Reversal Of Fortune because the Academy hadn't even nominated him for Dead Ringers?) and lauded the far less radical Brokeback Mountain. Congratulating us for being tolerantly supportive of gay cowboys is a far easier sell than suggesting there might be something wrong with us for liking good-looking men of violence so much.