In David Cronenberg's film A History of Violence , teenaged Jack Stall (Ashton Holmes) defuses a bully by refusing to take a swing. Instead of returning the bully's insults, he insults himself, with far more dexterity than the bully's limited intelligence could muster. His riposte is like that paradox in martial arts: sometimes, if you don't present a target, a blow can't connect. Sometimes.
But the peaceful solution always seems so much more complicated than the alternative, and it sure doesn't feel as good to the reptile brain. A History of Violence concerns the whole Stall family, and how a violent act seduces and transforms it. You can take it as a tight, straightforward thriller, or take its darker meaning.
Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is a gentle, soft-spoken man raising his family in a neat-as-a-pin Indiana town. Two mass murderers stroll into his diner, to kill some people for gas money. Tom tries to reason with them, but he and the customers are obviously going to die. He gets his hands on the gun and executes the killers like an old pro. One of them has his face blown half off.
They don't know it yet, but life, as the Stalls know it, is over. The story is picked up by the national news, drawing the attention of even worse people. Two more men walk into the diner. One of them, Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris), has a black suit and a dead gray eye. "This eye can still see one thing. It can see the guy who took it. It sees right through you Joey." He thinks Tom is really Joey Cusak, a killer involved with the Philadelphia mob, who disappeared twenty years ago.
Tom's wife, Edie (Maria Bello), at first stands by her man, but then starts to wonder: why is Tom so good at killing people? In a scene that's uncomfortable in every way, Edie, afraid of Tom (or is it Joey?), is running away from him, up the stairs, out of his life. Acting on instinct, he grabs her throat, trips her. Maybe he, and we, suspect that she has a taste for this; they do it right on the wooden staircase. Please, don't try this at home.
If that scene sounds clichéd, offensive, or downright ridiculous, Cronenberg gets away with it. It's in keeping with the theme and characters, and his actors are physical and honest. You see a drowning man clutching another swimmer. The question is: will Tom drown Edie in the process? In the morning, her back has large, red welts from the steps. Violence here has consequences, just like the real thing.
The screenplay, greatly improving upon the graphic novel of the same name, is two-thirds new work by newcomer Josh Olson and an un-credited Cronenberg. It follows Cronenberg's fascination with divided men to a conclusion that is intellectually satisfying, but that is outside the nuclear family and therefore less pressurized. I wish the movie had stayed in the claustrophobic little house, where sons seem born to take up their fathers' guns, where marriages die and might be born again. It would have been more thematically interesting if men kept arriving at the diner, to kill or be killed in endless supply.
Still, A History of Violence is mostly sharp angles. Like Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs, it inverts the meaning of the usual, bloody payoffs. The Greeks understood that you can wash your weapons in the sea. But first, somebody's going to die.
A History of Violence is playing at Showplace East. This and other theater and music reviews are available online at wfiu.indiana.edu. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.