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Photograph by Takashi Seida/New Line Productions

I'll Have My Eggs Hard-Boiled: Ed Harris orders up from reluctant diner hero Viggo Mortensen in David Cronenberg's 'A History of Violence.'

Men With Guns

David Cronenberg's 'A History of Violence' shocks an Indiana family out of their peaceful lives

By Richard von Busack

MURDERERS are on the road: a pair of hardened predators who rob cheap motels and leave everyone dead. After the titles of A History of Violence, the movie refocuses on a good-hearted small-town coffee shop proprietor in Millbrook, Ind. Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) goes through his day with the silent happiness of a man in his prime. He is taken care of by his busy but still enamored wife, Edie (the superb Maria Bello); his son (Ashton Holmes), who is bullied at school; and his adorable daughter, Sarah (newcomer Heidi Hayes).

The two worlds of predators and prey intersect, and the tables turn: acting with a fury and dispatch no one could have expected, Tom murders the murderers and becomes a 15-minute celebrity. Drawn to his story, professionals begin to seek him out—including a disfigured gun man (Ed Harris) acting under a tip from a Philly mob boss (William Hurt, doing Dustin Hoffman).

In some ways, this off-putting, frosted-pulp fable is director David Cronenberg's strangest movie. The surface is placid and almost gelid, but there is tension enough in the opening sequence—during the rounds of the ordinary family life, you're kept alert by the sense that you'll hear the sound of breaking glass at any second. And the sex and violence are hugely oversized, as they are in David Lynch's films. But a drama about how any meek person could turn out to be a killer isn't that subversive—it's what the Mortensen-starring megahit Lord of the Rings was about, for example: how gentle countryfolk became warriors. A movie gets your blood up. And in the grip of a film's argument, you'll long for, let alone approve, any kind of violence.

Although it is a chilled, discomfiting film, there is juice in A History of Violence, with particularly expert use of sex as a storytelling device: one instance of mysterious tenderness, one of bruising animalism. In both these scenes, Bello's intelligence and fierceness are remarkable. When her family is under siege, I'm surprised it wasn't the lady that the criminals were most afraid of. Unfortunately, there's a man-sized hole in the plot: when the sheriff (Peter MacNeill) comments that gangsters are "serious, secretive men who don't reveal themselves for petty matters," you wonder why it is that Harris' scarfaced thug decided to make an entrance that the whole town would have been talking about.

Cronenberg's story echoes Fred Zinnemann's 1948 noir Act of Violence, in which Van Heflin's small-town hero has his past ripped open by the arrival of a crippled vet (Robert Ryan). Act of Violence is one of the few films that hinted at how many former soldiers still had a killer inside them; maybe today's returning soldiers from Iraq might identify with the way Mortensen mimics the bewildering, incommunicable experience of taking a life. A History of Violence is as brave a movie as could be expected from Cronenberg (Crash, The Fly), but it doesn't have the voltage in it to make it unforgettable. It's a gangster story that strains for the high note. Smart and cool as it is, the truth is there are times when you wish for more heat and less light.

A History of Violence (R; 95 min.), directed by David Cronenberg, written by Josh Olsen, based on the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke, photographed by Peter Suschitzky and starring Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the September 28-October 4, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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