Cult director explores the many sides of violence

Can violence be a good thing? However unsettling that may be, that is a question posed in David Cronenberg’s latest, “A History of Violence,” one of his best works to date. In this brilliant portrait of a man facing what may or may not be his past, Viggo Mortensen plays Tom Stall, a character who embodies the all-American family man — a pillar of his Midwest community, a loving husband to his wife (Maria Bello) and a caring father to his young daughter and teenage son. But his tranquil life is disrupted when Stall, who runs a diner in a small Indiana town, thwarts a robbery in his coffee shop and almost effortlessly kills the assailants. The attention attracts a menacing mobster named Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) who approaches Stall and his family and claims that Stall is a former Philadelphia mobster named Joey Cusack — a notoriously ultra-violent man who scraped out Fogarty’s eye with a piece of barbed wire decades prior. Fogarty is upset and wants revenge, but his threats to Stall’s family force them to confront the fact that their passive father might not be the man he says he is.

It is a straightforward story, but it unravels in a highly innovative fashion. Although the film deals with the Irish mafia and was loosely based on a graphic novel, it is more of a small-town character study than a big-city crime saga.

“History of Violence” explores the intoxicating effects of violence by comparing it to drug abuse. Violence gives people power, but it deteriorates the foundations of familial relationships. “History” shows how thugs and heroes use violence everywhere in society, even in sleepy Middle America. Each of Stall’s family has to cope with violence in their own way, including Stall’s 16-year-old son (Ashton Holmes), who battles a violent bully at school.

In addition to skillful storytelling, it is the superb performances by the venerable cast that enhance the film overall. Harris and William Hurt both relish their roles as ruthless mobsters, each playing their parts with a blend of sarcasm and mercilessness. Bello, who has many intensely sexual scenes with Mortensen, gives a daring performance as Stall’s distraught yet devoted wife. But it is Mortensen’s complex performance as a man who can convince his family that he is a loving father and a sadistic killer within the same moment that is both captivating and chilling to watch.

Cronenberg has been hailed as an actor’s director on par with Clint Eastwood. His past works include 1988’s “Dead Ringers” and 2002’s “Spider,” and with his latest, he continues to delve deep into the psychological depths of his characters. Mortensen’s Tom Stall is his most seductive thus far.