The first couple of minutes in David Cronenberg's new film, A History of Violence, are deceptively slow. The camera shows two men leaving a hotel room in the middle of nowhere. The scene is so lethargic that neither the camera nor the men seem to be moving at all. Despite the stillness, a sinking feeling sets in: These men are violent. When the camera crawls forward to confirm the audience's worst suspicions a gun is sickeningly and slowly drawn. Still and quiet as the scene may be, it feels like an explosion. The movie has only just begun. The filmmaker hasn't even broken a sweat yet.
From the unsettling credit sequence we head into more serene pastures. The film introduces us to the leisurely small-town lives of the family Stall. The husband (Viggo Mortensen) runs a local coffee shop. The wife (Maria Bello) is a lawyer. They have two children and an apparently healthy marriage - we're soon privy to one of cinema's most casually adult sex scenes. It's intimate, filled with teen-age enthusiasm, and quite passionate. That it will be inverted later to cast new revealing light on the Stall marriage is perfectly representative of the film as a whole. However simple A History of Violence may at first appear, it is constantly revealing itself, rewarding close viewing.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. You see, it's best to go into the film knowing very little beyond this very basic set-up. The only narrative certainty, telegraphed by the very first moments, is that we are not in safe territory, no matter how idyllic the following Americana may appear. Slowly and methodically Cronenberg will tighten the screws on the Stall family. Violence will erupt. And as with the aforementioned sex scene, doubled or mirrored sequences and characters will arrive. It's a terrifically plotted thriller, keeping us off balance and challenging our previously held notions about the characters and story.
Cronenberg's amazingly assured direction, never forced or unclear despite constantly shifting ground and complicated agendas is aided immeasurably by a cast operating at the top of their game. Maria Bello is electric (not to mention sensually stunning) as the strong wife whose life is turned inside out. Ed Harris and William Hurt both stun and surprise in attention-getting supporting roles. Ashton Holmes, who plays the teenage son, is believably cast and moving. And finally, there is Viggo Mortensen. If anyone has ever been more perfectly cast than he is here as Tom Stall, I haven't seen the film. His performance is the tricky switch on which the entire History flips. His star turn is a master class in minimalism and exactly what the movie needs at every juncture.
Cronenberg's usual stable of collaborators are also on hand doing fine work. Unfortunately, like Cronenberg himself, they are so confident in their craft that they often escape critical or award notice. There is no heavy breathing, for instance, in the cinematography of Peter Suschitzky (six films with Cronenberg), just terrifically composed and mood-enhancing work. Editor Ronald Sanders (thirteen films with the director) also does exemplary work here; the pacing and coherency of the complicated story structure are top-notch. And speaking of... though David Cronenberg often writes his own features, this time he is working with a new collaborator. It was a wise move: Josh Olson's screenplay is a sensational adaptation of a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke.
Though American movies are rife with violence, few filmmakers actually pause to consider what the violence they display actually means or where it leads, if it means anything at all to them - that is, beyond its ability to enthral audiences - and if it leads anywhere at all - that is, beyond the next plot point. A decade ago Oliver Stone explored our capacity to celebrate bloodlust and idolize criminals in Natural Born Killers but the movie stumbled with the hypocrisies bound in its form and content. More recently Michael Moore had a large documentary success with Bowling for Columbine which built a case about the climate of fear adding to American violence statistics, another media indictment. Rare is the filmmaker who eschews the media connection (an easy target?) altogether to go this deep or this intimately into the heart of the violence inside of us. (Though the abstract concept of "the media" does make an appearance in A History of Violence, it is mere narrative blip and of no larger concern to the film at hand.) Here every punch, gunshot, slap, indeed any act of aggression carries with it repercussions, madness, psychic damage and, of course, more violence. Every hit stings.
Even if one ignores the gripping undercurrents, A History of Violence functions expertly well as a movie-movie. Many moviegoers will love it without examining its thematic beauty. That it thrills as a pure thriller while also building a subversively flexible allegory is a testament to the true artistry of the thing. Whether History is read as a statement on mankind's penchant for violence, American territorialism and aggression, or the American family, it simply works. If there was any doubt as to Cronenberg's mastery of the craft, working as he often does in less respected genres, they should be all but annihilated by this stunning film event. A History of Violence is a major work - accomplished, deceptively simple, and entirely unnerving.