An amiable small-town guy (Viggo Mortensen) runs a diner where a band of big-city hoodlums gathers to stir up trouble. When he outdraws the bad guys and saves a roomful of innocent customers, Mortensen's Tom Stall becomes a homespun vigilante hero in the national press--and unwittingly parts the curtain on his murky past. America's most learned and respected critics have spoken with one voice on this David Cronenberg film, describing it as a "masterpiece of indirection and pure visceral thrills," a "study in transference and transmutation," and Cronenberg's "most brilliantly subversive film." But what I saw looked like a Lifetime movie in slow motion, the audience impatiently perched a half-hour ahead of the action.
In recent years, Cronenberg has developed an extraordinarily advanced style: matter-of-fact yet controlled to the nth degree. And he needed to develop it: The material he had been working on (e.g., Spider, Crash), required such scientific precision. But when Cronenberg applies his rigid style to corny genre material such as this, he takes the juice right out of the pulp. (A hack would have done far better with the same material.) Cronenberg is so unable to set up the so-called normality of small-town life that when he inserts a smidgen of his own signature grotesquerie--the hero's wife (Maria Bello) seducing him in a cheerleader outfit, for example--the audience stares blankly at the screen in utter incomprehension. From the arthritic pacing to Ed Harris's risible dese-dem-dose performance as the lead villain, A History of Violence seems to me a self-evident stinker--Cronenberg's worst movie since his limp-dick hot-rod number Fast Company from 1979.
So what explains the hosannas? I think American film critics--especially the highbrow ones--are suffering from a variation on the Stockholm Syndrome: They want to imagine that some portion of the garbage they're soaked in week after week has the perfume of Pop turned into Art. Tired, perhaps, from having spent long hours championing arduous Asian art cinema that plays to empty houses, these critics would love to find a master filmmaker who's forging an alliance between art and commerce--and if all that's handy is a master's klutzy attempt to sell out, that might suffice. To be even more blunt, I'd say that some of Violence's success stems from the fact that it's the kind of movie that makes people feel smart: the kind with a simple, easy-to-hold, clearly stated Big Theme. (Among the surprises unearthed here: Things aren't always as they seem in white-picket-fence America--and even peaceable folks have a dark side.)
A History of Violence ends with the would-be haunting image of a family gathered to revive a shared delusion. It's probably meant as a symbol of George W. Bush's America, but it resonates more as a picture of the film's own reception.