You never quite know what kind of film you're watching in David Cronenberg's "A History of Violence" -- right up to the final scene.
And, as the ubiquitous Miss Martha might say, that's a good thing.
A very good thing, it seems to me. It was the best film I saw recently in the time I was able to spend at the Toronto Film Festival. It's by turns creepy, endearing, sexy, violent, deeply disturbing and weirdly funny. It won't just stay with you on the way home, it may well lodge in your head for quite a while, intruding its unsettling view of things into your assumptions about what's "normal."
It is a true American Gothic, set in small town red-state America (the fictional Millbrook, Ind.; it was filmed in the very real Millbrook, Ont.) where our hero Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) runs one of the town's two diners, has two children, a beautifully and erotically playful wife and still never knows what horror will come driving down the interstate into his idyllic town.
From its opening five minutes, you know that you're in a kind of Jekyll and Hyde landscape. There are some murders -- not souped-up, slo-mo ones played for maximum camera balletics but matter-of-fact ones shown to you as the hideous aftermath of rural rootlessness and cruelty.
All is then idyllic for a while. Eventually, though, killers Leland and Billy find their way into Stall's Diner. Unfortunately, it's closing time. There are words. Our hero -- as domestic and peace-loving a family man as exists in the mainland 48 states -- tries to defuse the situation with soft words and sweet reason. Blessed are the peacemakers, all that.
In this case, a soft voice doesn't "turneth away wrath." Guns flash. And murderous, sadistic rage. A rape of one of Tom's waitresses seems imminent -- followed by wholesale slaughter.
At which point, our hero -- with stunning speed and dispatch -- swings a coffee pot, disarms one bad guy and shoots them both dead as the proverbial doornail.
David Cronenberg is not only one of the great living filmmakers, he is one who has been, from the beginning of his career, far from reticent about showing blood and gore to the max (in fact, a hitherto unseen kind of bio-horror marked the early films that made his reputation). So when a .45-caliber automatic blows a face off in a Cronenberg movie, there's no discrete visual euphemism employed. But neither is it bloodily and exploitively rubbed in our faces.
And that's the whole point of "A History of Violence." From then on, we in the audience are implicated in everything that happens onscreen. It is the brilliance of "A History of Violence" -- and its lingering after-effect -- that this is not just a movie we watch, it's a movie that watches us.
Cronenberg is no stranger to this two-way street, either. His early movie "Videodrome" burst with eerie brilliance with the ideas of his fellow Canadian, communications theorist Marshall McLuhan.
Tom Stall, before that fatal moment, had been in the middle of the idyllic American life -- frisky sex included. (At one point, his gorgeous wife -- played by Maria Bello -- laments that "we never got to be teenagers together" and says "I'm going to fix that," whereupon she disappears and emerges from the bathroom and reappears in a cheerleader's uniform.)
After that moment, he becomes a media hero. "You could probably do 'Larry King Live'," says his teenage son, relishing Dad's sudden national fame.
And then, before bed, his wife looks out the window, sees a black car and says "more reporters."
"They don't look like reporters," says Tom.
And they're not. They're monstrous mobsters from Philadelphia led by Ed Harris in garish scar makeup. The thug insists that Tom was once a hired killer named Cusack back in Philly -- a man with "a history of violence" as the title puts it.
When the action finally shifts, as it must, to Philadelphia, this arrestingly disciplined, matter-of-fact, nimble movie suddenly becomes darkly comic. William Hurt, as Philly's gangster Mr. Big, gives a delightful, juicy performance as the mob king. It's a huge pleasure to see Hurt be funny again.
But that doesn't settle things, either. Nor does a brutal conjugal sexual assault on the stairs.
Cronenberg was hired to do a script that adapted a graphic novel to the screen but the immaculate and entirely original tone he gives it is what gives this movie its long and persistent echo.
An idea similar to the one that Sam Peckinpah was fiendish and lurid about three decades ago in "Straw Dogs" is treated by Cronenberg with restraint and mature wisdom but, at the same time, no fear of the realities of violence.
No small boon to this movie is the fact that his stars -- Viggo Mortensen as Tom, Maria Bello as his wife Edie -- are not really stars at all but rather actors (who happen, in both cases, to be universally appealing to the opposite sex.) Neither really are the supporting actors "stars."
It couldn't be more fitting. "A History of Violence," really, is a movie about us -- the movies we see, the reasons we see them, our whole popcorn morality.
No living film-maker is better equipped to ask its questions than David Cronenberg. And since this movie's answers are our own, few are better equipped to get into your head -- and stay there.
A History of Violence
* * * 1/2 (out of 4)
Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, left, and William Hurt in David Cronenberg's tale of violence and identity in middle America. Opening Friday in area theaters.