Leave it to a Canadian filmmaker to attempt dissecting the shape of rage that lies underneath small town America. Whenever his Cannes favorite A History of Violence dips into extreme sex and graphic bloodshed, David Cronenberg's preoccupations can be felt. The most spontaneous moment in the picture is when decent family man Tom Wells (Viggo Mortenson) takes his rapacious wife Edie (Maria Bello) in his arms and eats her pussy. It's the rare sex scene that actually treats intercourse as enjoyable—usually in movies it's presented as all sizzle or desperation. The other moment that defines the film is when a villain gets half of his face blown off and lies in a pool of his own blood, still half-aware.
After a pre-credits sequence with two killers on the road (Stephen McHattie and Greg Bryk) who slaughter an entire motel staff for seemingly no reason, History shifts into the leisurely pace of Midwestern life. Tom and Edie live in quaint Millbrook, Indiana—and much time is spent observing their folksy neighbors, Tom's successful diner, and the family dynamic between husband and wife, bright-eyed son Jack (Ashton Holmes) who's struggling with the bullies at school, and angelic daughter Sarah (Heidi Hayes).
After that intriguing sex scene where Edie dresses up like a cheerleader to seduce her husband, pretending they're still in high school, History gets down to the Violence of its title. The two outrageous, shout-at-the-top-of-their-lungs killers show up at Tom's diner, threaten the customers with guns, and ready themselves for another massacre when Tom springs into action, single-handedly killing the thugs and saving the lives of his neighbors. He becomes a local hero, and that's when Tom's life falls to pieces.
That would be a compelling setup if Cronenberg didn't handle the storytelling in such a pedestrian way. Few other directors tap into their inner psyche so forcefully as this true auteur—and his best films have been about the necessary release of private desires. Those themes recur in History, but it never gets beyond stating the obvious: there are dark passions brewing underneath American traditions such as family dinners, neighborly advice, and baseball games.
Based on a graphic novel, this material is treated like the one-dimensional juvenilia of ham-fisted comic books. It was frustrating to see cinematic shots in the movie that look like they're shots in an important movie (a "bravura" opening shot that runs an infinitesimal length long past the point where we got the point; that these men have killed everyone inside the motel). But that's not all: many of the actors look like actors. Viggo Mortensen, as committed a performer as ever, resembles a slightly odd leading man more than he does a small business owner. Ed Harris and William Hurt, in particular, play nefarious gangsters who come into Tom's life after he's transformed into an American hero. As they threaten him, mistaking him for one of their former Irish mob cohorts, Harris and Hurt indulge in making offbeat character choices that play like actors taking spirited chances, not real people. They're playing stock gangster characters from the world of comic books.
The locations feel like sets, even when Cronenberg is shooting in actual streets littered with orange and brown fall foliage. The diner appears to exist within the controlled environment of a soundstage. The dialogue is geared toward thematic prevalence or plot mechanization over character development. All of these things gain a painful obviousness throughout, in a way the reality bending didn't in earlier Cronenberg films. Somehow, the hermetically sealed environments of Crash and Videodrome, the minimalism of their design, the rawness of the performances all felt like they belonged in Cronenberg's Universe. The virtual reality of eXistenZ and fantasias of Spider felt slightly off for good reason—they existed within a character's idea of what the world is.
History, maddeningly, seems like it aspires for naturalism and a kind of mainstream blandness. That would seem to make the movie all the more potent when it dips into extreme sex and violence. And for a few moments, it really does take off in a stunning and revelatory way. The movie is anchored by Bello's rich, soulfully wounded performance—her love of her husband is as palpable as her sense of being betrayed as she wonders who he is. After a stunning orgy of violence that takes place within the town, husband and wife are forced to deal with issues they'd never faced before. If History was willing to simply spend time with this married couple, with Bello's depth played off against Mortensen's confusion, it might have conveyed a tremendous sense of reexamining the foundations of a marriage. Maybe 15 minutes of screen time get devoted to this conundrum, most strikingly in another sex scene that shows the territory this couple has yet to explore.
That story thread isn't even allowed to unravel in the third act, and gets snipped off in favor of a revenge sequence that belongs in some lesser action film. Cronenberg's relationship to violence in earlier films had an internal logic, saying much more about the character's destructive state of mind than simply presenting ritualized combat. When guns are drawn and bullets and blood go flying all over the place at the climax of History, it's tiring because it's been seen a million times in other crappy gangster films. (I was reminded of another Irish mob movie starring Ed Harris, entitled State of Grace, whose dimwitted avenging angel finale would be interchangeable with this one.) Then in the silence that follows, Cronenberg again allows the potential for that better, more interesting movie about the rupture within the family—and it's the start of something gripping. And then it's over.
A few years ago, Cronenberg was briefly attached to Basic Instinct 2. It aroused a sense of curiosity how he might handle a mainstream effort, albeit one that plays with societal taboos. He never got to make that one, and after seeing History it's just as well. It feels like journeyman work from one of the masters; a work-for-hire done by an artist who has no business hiring himself out for something that doesn't feel personal. On the surface, one can see the reasons he went for it—yet those preoccupations feel only skin deep. There's nothing more American than killing, and that's so broad. But for a few fleeting moments—when Cronenberg gets specific about sex and inner fury, mostly through Bello's stunning visage, and what happens in its aftermath—cutting emotional truths come into light. Will Tom and Edie survive? The movie in your mind after History closes may be more compelling than the movie itself.