Darwinian contemplation on the role violence plays in survival, “A History of Violence” at first appears to be Canadian director David Cronenberg’s most conventional film. A mid-America small-town couple, Tom and Edi Stall (played by Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello), so contented and peaceful in their ordinariness that it’s almost poignant, have their lives turned upside down when Tom shoots to death two psychopaths who attempt a robbery and murder spree.
Tom, much to his discomfort, becomes a national hero. Just when things seem to be settling back down, two mobsters show up insisting our reluctant hero is in fact a former hitman with wildly bloody past. What follows is a gripping psychological thriller that, somewhat unsatisfyingly, only just begins to explore modern America’s ambivalent relationship with violence.
Cronenberg escalates the ominousness of his circumstances, and that of his rural family, thanks not only to Mortensen’s remarkable restraint but the intercession of bad guys — first Ed Harris and then, brilliantly, William Hurt — who tell a mile of mean stories while occupying little more than crawl space. The film compresses universal violence and deceit as much through gestures as guns. Rarely is so much honor and disappointment left to its own devices so jarringly.