The Stalls live the idyllic life in their perfect small town of Millbrook Indiana. But in one fell swoop both family and town are turned upside down. One morning while peacefully running his local diner Tom (Mortensen) stops two drifters from robbing his establishment and harming his customers--and his heroism suddenly opens up a whole can of worms. Tom and his wife Edie (Maria Bello) are soon being harassed by a group of men led by the scar-faced mobster Carl (Ed Harris) who blow into town in their limousine--as opposed to their horses which is one of the few aspects that separates this tale from a true-grit Western. Carl claims Tom has a sordid past which allowed him to subdue the robbers with such ease. Nothing can come good of this. The bad guys' prodding takes such a toll on the Stalls that Tom decides he must do whatever it takes to protect his family--and perhaps more importantly the truth.
The three diverse characters in A History of Violence--each of them damaged in his or her own way--are brought to vividly to life by three equally dissimilar actors. Mortensen proves his abilities reach far beyond the confines of LOTR. He has a subtle demeanor to which you willingly devote your attention; in many ways he is a poor man's Johnny Depp--which certainly isn't an insult--with his quirky role choices and disdain for the spotlight. Harris gives undoubtedly one of the strongest performances of his career. The actor's persistent and intimidating mobster is ominous trouble before Harris even opens his mouth. And Bello as Edie tries to both hold down the fort amidst the chaos following Tom's heroism and maintain the sacred trust that comes along with married life. She is unnerved sultry and everything in between.
A History of Violence is at times gruesome and at other times sexually explicit. It is also director Cronenberg's most tame and accessible film in some time. This certainly isn't condemning it to conventionalism but the film is still rather subdued by Cronenberg (Naked Lunch Dead Ringers) standards. Cronenberg has had a prolific career full of a few hits and many misunderstood misses and if there's one sure thing about Violence it's that it continues his proclivity for sheer unpredictability. The few graphic scenes--namely one sexual and two violent--are totally unexpected and unmistakably Cronenberg's stamp. They are like (mild) nuggets from Quentin Tarantino's unconscious but are totally effective when nestled between an otherwise talky drama. Unfortunately Violence might be called a miss. The culprit as it is in many movies is the film's third act. Cronenberg strays from the film's path that took so long to cultivate and it devolves ever so slightly into something different and unfortunately over the top.