- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 22, 2005

David Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence” begins as a sturdy, and surprisingly straight meditation on the anger dwelling within all of us. Then, inexplicably, it morphs into a classed-up Steven Seagal thriller with all the bloodshed and improbabilities that entails.

Such a split personality is nothing new for Mr. Cronenberg, whose career has swung from artful trash like 1996’s “Crash” to the revered horror of 1986’s “The Fly.”

Violence begets violence. It’s hardly a novel notion, but, as the director presents it in the film’s opening moments, it feels as fresh as a loaf of bread straight from the oven.

Small-town businessman Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) lives a tranquil life in a small Indiana town. He manages a busy downtown diner, is married to a lovely woman (Maria Bello) who doesn’t mind dressing up as a cheerleader to cheer on her man in the boudoir, and has two Hallmark-perfect children.

That idyll is shaken when a pair of thugs threaten to turn his diner into a slaughterhouse. Tom saves the day and becomes an overnight hero, but he’s a reticent hero. He’d rather get back to pouring freshly brewed coffee to his regulars than wallow in his newfound fame.

A mysterious hood named Carl Fogaty (Ed Harris) sidles up to Tom’s counter a few days later, seemingly drawn by the media circus.

However, Carl isn’t interested in Tom. He wants to speak to Joey, a tough from back in Philadelphia who nearly killed him years ago. Carl insists Tom is that Joey. Tom swears the stranger has the wrong man, but Carl can’t be convinced otherwise.

Meanwhile, Tom’s teenage son is having bully troubles of his own at school, a situation where violence might be the only solution. Mr. Cronenberg quickly loses control of the bully subplot, contriving confrontations that could only occur on the page or screen.

Much like the other “Crash,” this summer’s indie hit, “Violence” is deliriously compelling, and thought provoking, too, but that’s not quite enough to save it from its clunky plotting.

There’s little left to say about Mr. Mortensen or his unquestionable ability to carry a feature. Between him and Mr. Harris, the film teems with Marlboro Manliness. And Miss Bello’s role as the dutiful wife is anything but perfunctory, a credit both to screenwriter Josh Olson and the actress herself, a secret weapon in many small films these days.

“A History of Violence” inevitably brings to mind “Straw Dogs,” but that film perfectly captured what happens when an ordinary Joe is backed into a corner.

The combination of Mr. Mortensen and Mr. Cronenberg’s ham-fisted commentary makes this “History” hardly worth repeating.


TITLE: “A History of Violence”

RATING: R (Nudity, extreme violence, sexual situations and mature themes)

CREDITS: Directed by David Cronenberg. Screenplay by Josh Olson.

RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes

WEB SITE: www.historyofviolence.com


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