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Born-again criminal

Viggo Mortensen is a compromised hero in Cronenberg thriller

Two blank-eyed, ice-cold killers drive away from a seedy motel leaving a slug trail of blood behind them.

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Their next stop is the quiet, middle-class community of Millbrook, Ind., where Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife, Edie (Maria Bello), live with their two children in David Cronenberg's quietly devastating parable A History of Violence.

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The town where Tom and Edie live feels like normalcy's staging ground, a place not unlike the decent, staid burgs of David Lynch films. Decent folk bustle through a downtown so iconic and ordinary, you expect to see signs marked simply "Store" or "Business." Overhead shots of people moving through a shopping center parking lot look like a Jeff Wall photograph of artfully choreographed human behavior.

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We brace ourselves for the blood-flowing, operatic disaster we know is coming.

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Cronenberg's landscape in A History of Violence has the tidiness but also the vaguely surreal quality of classic westerns like High Noon, or thrillers like Cape Fear where decency and order make their stand against individual sociopathy. Even the sex scenes feel as intentionally artificial as avant-garde theater, with Edie dressing up as a cheerleader to titillate Tom, but also to suggest a motif of split personalities — naughty and nice — running through the film.

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Split personalities are suggested again when the thugs show up at Tom's diner at closing time and quickly take his staff hostage.

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When mild-mannered Tom manages to stop the inevitable bloodbath in one remarkably quick and gory stroke, he becomes a local hero — small-town family man transformed by necessity into a Walking Tall vigilante.

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That act of impulsive heroism proves to be his undoing.

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One day, a milky-eyed, big-city gangster, Carl Fogaty (Ed Harris), shows up claiming he knows the newly famous Tom from way back — back when Tom was himself a bad man, Carl claims, and went by the name of Joey Cusack.

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One instance of violence seems to unleash a domino effect of escalating brutality as Carl and his men trail Tom and Edie through town, demanding Tom return with them to Philadelphia.

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Cronenberg's films, from Rabid to The Fly, have often expressed an interest in the way human behavior can take on the properties of something viral; as abstract and senseless as a disease passed from one person to the next. Violence similarly spreads like a contagion in A History of Violence, as it travels from the visiting criminals, to Tom, to Edie and finally to their son, Jack (Ashton Holmes).

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That concept is made even creepier by the eerie sci-fi dimensions of Cronenberg's glacial pacing and a sleepwalking, theatrical quality undoubtedly intensified by the source material, a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke. The tone of the film suggests industrial videos, dreams and the comparably Deepfreeze vibe of fellow Canadian Atom Egoyan.

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A History of Violence, as its title implies, is a profound examination of a world divided into "good" and "bad," where we reflexively cheer on the "right" kind of violence and recoil at the "wrong" kind. Cronenberg equalizes violence and makes us deal with its brutal reality, even when expressed by the film's hero, in his lingering multiple close-ups of faces turned into masses of churned-up hamburger.

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"This is a nice town, we take care of our nice people," the local sheriff drawls to Carl as his long, black sedan rolls menacingly through town. But like many of the blandly stated claims in A History of Violence, there is a brackish menace behind the words: That notion of community solidarity, depending upon your perspective, can be comforting or clannish.

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Watching Cronenberg's intense, thoughtful, morally ambiguous film, it is hard not to think about other circumstances where men and women are asked to act violently for the common good, and how artificial the dividing line between abject good and abject evil can be.

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In war, for instance, people are asked to behave violently, but then they return to being peaceable, productive citizens in their civilian lives. Avenging paterfamilias Tom is just such a symbolic doppelganger in a long line of them, from Clint Eastwood to Lee Marvin to Arnold Schwarzenegger. Calm on the outside, Tom can turn on the roiling fury when duty calls.

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What Stanley Kubrick did for sex in Eyes Wide Shut — showing how it circulates beneath the respectable straight world and could turn a Dr. Jekyll into a secretive Mr. Hyde — Cronenberg does with violence in this film.

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A History of Violence questions what we find heroic. And Cronenberg shows how the brutal, dehumanizing consequences of violence cannot be so easily brushed aside.




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