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A History of Violence

A bitter meditation on violence adapted from John Wagner and Vince Locke's 1997 graphic novel, this chilly thriller may be Canadian director David Cronenberg's least personal and most mainstream film. The age-old question at its core — can a leopard change his spots and, if so, is the newly striped leopard still a leopard? — is parsed with dispassionate brutality that will be familiar to anyone who's seen SPIDER (2002) or CRASH (1996), but may puzzle those expecting a conventional story of crime and revenge. Millbrook, Ind., where mild-mannered family man Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) lives his exemplary small-town life, could have sprung full-blown from Norman Rockwell's imagination. Tom's wife, Edie (Maria Bello), is a lawyer; they have two children — little Sarah (Heidi Hayes) and teenaged Jack (Ashton Holmes) — and a host of friendly and supportive neighbors. They're on first-name terms with the local sheriff, not that they ever speak to him except to pass the time of day, and working stiffs and dating teens alike stop by Tom's diner for coffee and pie. Then everything changes in the flash of a bullet. A pair of hard-faced drifters (Stephen McHattie, Greg Bryk), broke and at loose ends, blow into town with blood on their hands and murder in their eyes. When they slither into Tom's diner at closing time, manhandle the waitress and terrorize the customers, Tom kills them with such ruthless, apparently effortless efficiency that it seems like a bad dream. The press flocks to the human-interest story, and Tom responds with the perfect blend of modesty and mild annoyance, but the relentless spotlight eventually catches the one good eye of hardened thug Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris). He turns up at the counter with goons in tow and addresses Tom as "Joey Cusack," insisting that he and Joey go way back — all the way to Philadelphia. Carl has the scar tissue to prove it. Though the story is predictable, Cronenberg's cool touch keeps it from degenerating into tired action-movie clichés; he drains the visceral kicks from Tom/Joey's voyage into darkness and replaces them with a creeping sense of unease. Once you know what evil lurks in the hearts of men, Cronenberg asks, how do you live with that knowledge? For all the bloodshed, it's fundamentally a cold, cold fable, the icy whisper that turns every happy thing to ash.