A History Of Violence

on September 23, 2005 by Sheri Linden
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Adapting the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke, helmer David Cronenberg and scripter Josh Olson seem hampered rather than inspired by the material. Though it has its moments, including a couple of brief but juicy bad-guy turns from Ed Harris and William Hurt, "A History of Violence" feels contrived and lifeless for most of its running time. A muddled take on its subject -- less critique than halfhearted justification -- further softens the film's effect.

With his clean-cut good looks and slow-burn intensity, Viggo Mortensen is well cast as protagonist Tom Stall, happily married father of two in the gee-whiz Indiana burg of Millbrook. At his Main Street diner one night, a couple of no-account drifters stop by for cash and mayhem, and Tom responds with lightning instinct to protect his employees and customers, killing the murderous duo. His derring-do makes him an instant local hero, much to his embarrassment. But modesty is the least of his problems when the TV coverage draws mobster Fogarty (Harris) to Millbrook, two goons in tow. Fogarty insists Tom's name is Joey and that they have unsettled business in Philadelphia. He also insists it was "Joey" who left him with a blind left eye after a nasty trick with barbwire. Fogarty won't take no for an answer, provoking fierce protectiveness from Tom's lawyer wife, Edie (Maria Bello), while Tom tries to shrug it all off as a case of mistaken identity. His teenage son (Ashton Holmes), meanwhile, discovers his inner brute when he takes on the dumb jock who's been harassing him, and he proves of immense value when Fogarty pushes Tom to the limit. But ultimately Tom must face the past he's tried to disown and the brother (Hurt) who summons him home.

Establishing the rural idyll and model household in the early going, Cronenberg overdoes the earnestness in a way that's corny and dull, without the edge that made David Lynch's small-town USA so tantalizing in "Blue Velvet." Mixing archetypes like Harris' villain and Mortensen's hero with Bello's strong-willed and complex flesh-and-blood character doesn't work. At nearly every turn the filmmaking weakens the story's sense of purpose rather than bringing to life intriguing themes concerning identity and self-preservation. And at its worst, the film can be read as an apologia for American might, not likely the filmmakers' intent but a result of the uncertain approach to the material. Starring Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, William Hurt, Ashton Holmes and Ed Harris. Directed by David Cronenberg. Written by Josh Olson. Produced by Chris Bender and J.C. Spink. A New Line release. Drama. Rated R for strong brutal violence, graphic sexuality, nudity, language and some drug use. Running time: 95 min

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