Directed by David Cronenberg, starring Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, Ashton Holmes, William Hurt, Stephen McHattie and Greg Bryk.
While the Christopher Walken-starring 'The Dead Zone' is remembered fondly by many, and 'The Fly' won an Oscar for Best Make-Up, the films of David Cronenberg have rarely made it onto the mainstream radar. This is the director whose CV includes such corporeal studies as 'Shivers', 'Rabid', 'The Brood', 'Videodrome', 'Dead Ringers' and 'Crash' - films that wouldn't trouble the masses, but would trouble the masses, if that makes sense. Now along comes 'A History of Violence', Cronenberg's straightest film to date, a sometimes tantalising look at what he could do if he came in from the cold, but also a film littered with missed opportunities.
In the picture-perfect Indiana town of Mlilbrook, Tom Stall (Mortensen) runs the local diner. Husband to Edie (Bello) and a father-of-two, Stall's life is predictable and rewarding, each day carrying the rhythm of the day before. But all that changes when two drifters (McHattie and Bryk) arrive in his diner one night at closing time and pull guns. Stall kills both with a ruthless efficiency. Now he's a media sensation, an "American Hero" who has articulated the fears of smalltown folk and city dwellers alike.
News of Stall's heroics travel far, all the way back to the East Coast, bringing gangster Carl Fogarty (Harris) and two of his associates cross-country to Millbrook. The black shades-wearing Fogarty reckons that Tom Stall is really Joey Cusack, a Philadelphia hoodlum who took Fogarty's right eye out with barbed wire and then disappeared from the underworld. Stall says he's got the wrong man and asks Fogarty to be on his way, but Fogarty isn't for turning. And so the stand-off begins.
With Mortensen and former 'ER' regular Bello in the lead roles, a Howard Shore score and an attention span-friendly running time, 'A History of Violence' will pull in many who normally would give Cronenberg's films a wide berth. Once the final credits roll, however - or perhaps before them - many will wonder if this film, like its lead character, was really sure of what it was meant to be. At 96 minutes, 'A History of Violence' feels like a story missing an entire act, and rushed with it. Cronenberg doesn't make full use of the talent - Bello, Harris and Hurt - at his disposal and, with the tone swinging too wildly between dramatic and corny, the story doesn't engage like it could.
Up until and during the introduction of Harris' bad guy Fogarty, this is an excellent film and his arrival leads you to expect tension which will steadily build (like 'Witness') to a Western-honouring showdown. Instead, Cronenberg sticks his finale an hour into the film and then tacks on more to the plot, thereby lessening its impact. There was no need for 'A History of Violence' to leave Millbrook - putting Stall on a road trip means much of the film's power is lost en route. And with so many themes which could've been explored - women being drawn to damaged men, whether people can really change, the allure of brute force - you're left wondering if the graphic novel on which the film is based resolved these issues any better.
If you're looking for an exploration of guilt, rage and the emotions in between, Clint Eastwood's 'Unforgiven' remains hard to beat. 'A History of Violence' will probably end up as the Cronenberg film that most people have seen - and also one of the least deserving of that accolade.