He's not quite a household name, but in recent years Canadian director David Cronenberg has become perhaps the most precise filmmaker in the English language. His most recent films -- the breezy, self-reflexive eXistenZ (1999) and the claustrophobic Spider (2002) -- were mini-masterpieces that never found the audiences they deserved. But A History of Violence -- a Hollywood studio release with, reportedly, his biggest budget ever -- is the director's most commercially promising film since Dead Ringers (1998) or The Fly (1986) and, on the surface at least, his most conventional film ever.
Of course, A History of Violence is very much about what lurks beneath seemingly placid surfaces. Set in the idyllic town of Millbrook, Indiana (his first film set in the U.S. since 1983's The Dead Zone) and starring the almost cartoonishly attractive Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello as small-town nuclear couple Tom and Edie Stall, A History of Violence has the archetypal feel of a fable -- a violent, erotic fable to match Spider's existential fairy tale.
The film's disquieting credit sequence has a destabilizing effect on the seemingly mundane set-up that follows. Two criminals conduct a silent motel massacre, which cuts to a little girl waking up from a nightmare, scared of monsters under her bed. Her father (Mortensen) comes in to comfort her, telling the girl that there's "no such thing as monsters." But we already know that isn't true.
This is the first Cronenberg film to reveal an interest in Hollywood tradition, mostly because that tradition is partly what the film is about. A History of Violence is part revisionist Western in the vein of John Ford or Clint Eastwood. It's part film-noir thriller in the vein of Alfred Hitchcock or Fritz Lang. It deploys the familiar iconography of these films and others like them: a house, a porch, a prairie, a shotgun. Bad men out there. A man forced to protect his family. A small-town diner. Hitchcock's "wrong man" theme. The family dinner table.
There's nothing ironic in Cronenberg's approach to this material. He honors his source material, but he also defamiliarizes it, forcing the audience into a sharper awareness of its own reactions. This is most apparent in the film's scenes of violence, which are depicted in real time, as almost uncontrollable spasms, with realistic gore. Set-ups that would provide vicarious thrills in other movies are unpacked here, made to be unsettling, forcing the viewer to negotiate his or her impulse to either cheer or flinch.
The human monsters we see at the film's outset make their way to Millbrook, to Tom Stall's diner, where an attempted robbery -- and likely worse -- is thwarted by Tom's decisive and deadly action. On the surface, this scenario doesn't scream Cronenberg, who made his reputation with "body horror" chillers such as They Came From Within and The Brood. But in A History of Violence, the act is a virus, rooted in country or community or nature. It's a pre-existing menace, and when it's let loose -- as in this diner confrontation -- it spreads.
At the Cannes Film Festival in July, A History of Violence was often discussed as an allegory about Bush administration militarism, which it may be to some degree. But this film is too purposefully uncertain and too universal to be a political polemic. To the degree that it's an investigation of America's self-mythology from the view of an outsider, it's sharper, more understanding, and less didactic than Lars Von Trier's Dogville, for example. But it's also much more than that.
The film's title is a reference to Stall, a family man who may or may not actually be Philadelphia gangster Crazy Joey Cusak. But it also refers to the historical use of violence to settle disputes, by nations or societies or individuals. Yet it may also be about the degree to which evolution has programmed violence into us all, the degree to which, to paraphrase that earlier Cronenberg title, it comes from within.
Cronenberg's consideration of violence goes far beyond its relevance to present-day geopolitics. It's definitely about a nation with a history of violence, Norman Rockwell normalcy built and preserved through spilt blood. But though the film's setting and evocation of classic Hollywood makes its focus explicitly American, you sense that the aim is larger than that, that the questions it asks are relevant to any country, any society, any person. And the film passes no judgment.
Questions about the roots and uses of violence are passed to the audience without telegraphed answers. All of the acts of violence committed by the film's protagonists are provoked. But are they justified? Are they proportional? Does violence need to be proportional? Can violence be avoided? These questions could be asked about America's reaction to 9/11 -- or about America's reaction to Pearl Harbor. Or about other cycles of provocation and retribution big or small, past or present. And these questions aren't just for those who engage in violence directly but for those who consume it through the culture or benefit indirectly. The film's stunning final scene seems to ask if our comfort is purchased elsewhere through the commission of violence.
What is most inspiring, cinematically, is that Cronenberg asks these questions in the context of a never-dull genre movie (marked by four violent eruptions and two hot sex scenes) that could easily be taken as straight entertainment by some viewers. A History of Violence is far from a dry deconstruction.
When I reviewed Spider a couple of years ago, I wrote that it peaked for me about a half-hour after leaving the theater. A History of Violence worked the same way. What felt slighter than expected while I was watching it bloomed in the mind afterward. I haven't been more eager for a second viewing of a film all year.