The common assumption goes like this: A primal urge for slick violence and sweaty, glammed-up sex are all that seduce teeming crowds of 9-to-5 Americans away from their fist-clenched dollars and into the sensory deprivation of a stadium-seated multiplex. Movie studios stake millions on the principle that kung-fu, AK-47s and busty babes in skimpy tops – preferably side by side – sell. David Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence” is a masterful subversion of precisely that flesh-market mentality, crafting an unsettling indictment of a culture of violence and voyeurism.

The film opens in a familiar small town, where a diner owner named Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen, “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy) becomes an unwitting hero after killing a pair of murderous thugs in self-defense. Tom is a family man, devoted completely to his wife, Edie (Maria Bello, “Secret Window”), and their two perfect children. The hoodlum she kills are sociopathic killers – Cronenberg wants to make this easy.

But things turn nasty when a shady figure from Philadelphia named Carl Fogerty (Ed Harris, “A Beautiful Mind”), with a bum eye and a pair of gorilla bodyguards, accuses Tom of being a mob man by the name of Joey Cusack. Determined to protect himself and his family, Tom stumbles into an unbreakable cycle of violence that only seems to escalate with every attempt to end it.

Eventually, circumstances summon the hero back to Philadelphia where a run-in with the sublimely funny William Hurt (“The Village”) allows Cronenberg to compose his final crescendo with the pops and bangs of gunfire, and the splatter of warm blood on a cold and rugged face.

It’s the hyper-real violence, simultaneously repulsive and mesmerizing, that transforms the film from a conventional underdog fable to something hauntingly relevant. The camera doesn’t pull back from smashed noses, bullets to the head or a dying man with his face to the tile floor, choking for air through the dark stream of his own blood.

Cronenberg also plays extensively with movie archetypes – the arrogant sports bully, the outlandishly accented mob boss A– even Mortensen’s limp resembles the John Wayne gait of a shining movie superhero. And true to form, the audience has no doubt that, faced with a room full of heavily armed killers, the defenseless hero will saunter off unharmed into the bloody sunset.

By playing so close to filmic conventions, Cronenberg subverts them. From the media thirst for gory detail to the audience’s perverse longing for the next good punch in the face, this is more than just a violent film. It digs into the very heart of violence in American culture.

To that end, leading-man Mortensen is perfect. Not only does the actor possess the matinee-idol looks and dripping-testosterone sex appeal of an action-star god, but he carries all the hero baggage of his orc-slaying days in Middle Earth. It doesn’t hurt that his performance is as shaded and nuanced as the film itself, or that his chemistry with Bello is genuine and complex. In one of the film’s most disturbing scenes, the desperate couple finally marries Hollywood’s passions for exploitative sex and aggressive violence – too bad it’s among the least commercially appealing scenes ever shot on film.

 

Rating: 4 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

 

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