In “A History of Violence,” Viggo Mortensen plays Tom Stall, an average guy in a small rural city. He and his wife, Edie (Maria Bello), share a healthy and loving marriage with two children (Ashton Holmes and Heidi Hayes). Tom owns a diner in the center of town, frequented by the locals. The townsfolk eat, drink and carry on inconsequential conversations about the simple life.
It all seems like a story lifted right out of “Leave it to Beaver,” but things take a sharp turn for the worse when two thugs hold up Tom’s diner one evening. In one swift move, Tom is forced to shoot and kill the men, saving his life and the lives of his employees. He becomes a town hero, attracting national attention and fame.
Tom’s newfound celebrity brings a slew of new patrons to his diner, but it also brings some unwelcome guests. In walks the mysterious Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris), who seems to be mistaking Tom for someone else. Their encounter sets the stage for a poignant, albeit flawed look at violence and its influence on those it touches.
“Violence” is based on a graphic novel by the same name, but it strays from that version drastically after the initial premise has been laid out. Director David Cronenberg has even said he had no idea Josh Olson’s screenplay was based on a graphic novel until they had completed several drafts of the script.
Despite its ingenious premise, this is far from a perfect movie. Among many, two particular faults stand out. First, the initial half hour is an uncomfortable mess, as Cronenberg tries to establish the character of Tom Stall and his relationships with those around him. It isn’t until Tom’s encounter with Fogarty that the film finally begins to take shape.
The score is also way too overpowering for this type of film. With all the huge, sweeping horns and strings blaring over every scene, you’d think you were in the middle of a superhero movie if you had your eyes closed. In a movie like “Violence,” less would have certainly been more.
Even with its many shortcomings, “Violence” rebounds mainly on the shoulders of its cast. Each actor should be recognized for raising the level of Olson’s mediocre screenplay. Mortensen really shines here, giving a nuanced performance as Tom. He plays the character sheepishly at first, but drastically changes his approach as the story unfolds.
Then there’s Ed Harris, who gives what may be his best performance since 1999’s “The Truman Show.” In “Violence,” he gets a great chance to show his terrific range as an actor, although I would have liked to see his character developed a little bit more.
The real gem, though, is Bello, whose character has to watch this story unfold for the first time along with the audience. Edie Stall doesn’t know what to think, let alone what to do about the situation, and the subtle emotion in Bello’s eyes works better than words ever could. She received a Golden Globe nomination for her work in 2004’s grossly underrated “The Cooler,” and turns in another fantastic performance here.
Cronenberg has earned quite a cult following over the years for his offbeat work. He is best known for directing bizarre and grotesque scenes in movies like “The Fly,” “Shivers” and “Scanners.” So, in a film about violence directed by one of the masters of violence – along with Quentin Tarantino – you would expect some scenes to be particularly sadistic, but while the bloodshed in “Violence” is gritty and certainly gruesome, it is also incredibly real.
In this film, Cronenberg has chosen not to glorify the brutality. Instead he has painted a stark portrait illustrating how a seemingly idyllic society and its inhabitants can be affected when violence is inserted into the equation. While it is reasonably flawed, “A History of Violence” still manages to serve its purpose adequately.