Trouble at the Diner
Known more for his offbeat character examinations that play better to a niche or art-house crowd, David Cronenberg (The Fly, Dead Ringers) tries his hand at mainstream family drama with A History of Violence. While far from art-house, the film still has that Cronenberg touch as a deep, dark and disturbing exploration of people and things that aren't what they seem. Even the film's title is a bit misleading, considering that the film appears to be a back-porch apple pie tale set in the middle of the American heartland. After all, what act of violence could possibly occur in Millbrook, Indiana, right?
Taking a cue from Hitchcock, Cronenberg tells the story of an innocent man mistaken for someone else by some very bad people. When this happens, the man's entire family, as well as the audience, is dragged into a bottomless pit of deception and danger. In this case, it's Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), a Main Street restaurant owner who takes matters into his own hands by killing two men who attempt to rob his diner. Millbrook is a lot like Andy Griffith's Mayberry where everybody knows everybody, so Tom's actions make him a locally celebrated hero. But everyone, including his wife (Maria Bello), daughter (Heidi Hayes) and son (Ashton Holmes) knows Tom as a peaceful man who wouldn't harm a fly. So, how was he able to whip the asses of two heavily armed robbers? The first cracks have appeared in the façade of Tom's seemingly innocuous life.
This is the point where things begin to turn bad for Tom, but delicious for the audience. The proceedings have advanced to this point with a deceptive calm, save for a bloody opening scene that sets a dark and uneasy tension beneath the peace and quiet of Millbrook.
Along with Tom's local celebrity comes the unwanted attention brought about by National news broadcasts covering his heroism. After seeing his mug plastered all over the TV, a black-suited Carl Fogaty (Ed Harris) accompanied by his oafish henchmen, shows up at Tom's diner insisting that Tom is actually Joey from Philadelphia. Insisting the man is mistaken, Tom demands that he leave immediately.
As the rest of the movie unfolds, Tom's world spirals into a swirling mass of shocking revelations and unexpected twists. The performances are nearly perfect, including a short but memorable contribution by William Hurt as Richie Cusack an Irish mob boss. I always questioned Judi Dench's Oscar win in Shakespeare In Love due to her scant five-minute appearance, but my concerns will be vindicated if Hurt is recognized for his performance here. He's not on the screen very long, but he takes advantage of what he gets with a chilling portrayal of a demented character that could have used a bit more screen time.
To reveal any more of the story would violate the studio's request that we refrain from revealing the film's dramatic plot twists or character developments. So I won't. But I will tell you that typical with his reputation, Cronenberg successfully mixes violence with sex, complacency with discomfort, and beauty with repulsiveness. But atypical of his style, the film is more narrative-driven than anything he has done before. Things unfold in a very easy to follow linear string, but the messages are anything but simple. You'll have to do some thinking on your own, but then again, it's much more rewarding when we can think for ourselves.
A History of Violence gives us a very realistic and disturbing look at exactly how complicated things can become when lives are touched by violence. The repercussions can be staggering. The film presents a graphic illustration of what might have happened had Charles Manson visited Mayberry …only darker!
(Released by New Line Cinema and rated R for brutal violence, graphic sexuality, nudity, language and some drug use.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.)