David Cronenberg would no sooner judge a character's morals than an entomologist would condemn a predatory insect. The director's increasingly clinical approach and aversion to treacle kept his schizophrenia study, Spider, from sinking into bathos. But in A History of Violence (based on John Wagner and Vince Locke's graphic novel), the Canadian director's strengths work against him. The result is an immaculate mess: Remote and feeling overly fussed over, it's a schematic of identity conflict and family drama with airs of American psycho/socio-study and theme-muddling genre add-ons.
After a truly eerie opening, in which some Lynchian scumbags kill a mess of folks at a roadside motel, Cronenberg shifts locales to an idyllic small town in Indiana where nothing much has changed since The Music Man was released. Here, the overly significantly named Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) runs a diner and shares a nice house with his lawyer wife, Edie (Maria Bello); his teen son, Jack (Ashton Holmes); and daughter, Sarah (Heidi Hayes). As marrieds, Mortensen and Bello share a swell chemistry, and their sex scene in which Edie reclaims her lost adolescence by wearing the uniform of the cheerleader she never was is both hot and sweet. Unfortunately, though, it's not much more than a reference point for pervier later couplings.
Before long, the aforementioned scumbags show up in Tom's diner and threaten a customer. Tom grabs a gun and blows them away with impressive skill. Local hero-hood ensues. The aura of sanctioned violence spreads to Jack's son, who used to fight in-school adversity with words but is now inspired to beat the crap out of the local jock jerk. For a tantalizing stretch, we seem to be in Cronenberg territory for certain, with violence presented as a viral menace of sorts.
But then Ed Harris shows up, archly playing a scarred Irish mobster, and so much for the violence-as-viral-metaphor thing. Instead, Cronenberg drops the family drama to indulge a plot twist that leads to a rote noir identity nightmare and an attendant gangster-film storyline that's as old as James Cagney's tombstone.
Mortensen, at least, is perfectly cast, taking us through Tom's turns as good neighbor, freaked-out violent guy and a third ID we won't reveal. There's the distinct possibility that none of these personas is who Tom really is if there is such a thing as "who you really are," which is most likely what Cronenberg is on about here. But the director gets lost shifting identity formations and tweaking mobster-movie conventions (the latter deliciously represented by William Hurt's over-the-top evocation of a hysterically droll mob kingpin).
Despite the director's assured, arid style, Violence rings hollow. When Edie learns of the brutality in Tom's nature, she's inspired to screw his brains out. Yet elsewhere, another violent act makes her puke. So violence both turns us on and makes us feel bad for being turned on. From somebody as canny as Cronenberg, we expected more than a dry recitation of what we already know.