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A History of Violence: Passion in the mythological Midwest

Viggo Mortensen in A History of Violence

New Line Productions

A History of Violence (2005)

The Establishing Shot

What better film to revisit on the Canada Day-Fourth of July weekend then A History of Violence. David Cronenberg's film was shot in Millbrook, Ont. (near Peterborough), but is set in the mythological American Midwest, where a quiet family man operates an Edward Hopper-style diner. Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) wears a crucifix. His boy plays baseball. Wife Edie (Maria Bello) dresses like a cheerleader for their late-evening entertainment. Everything is normal as blueberry pie … until killers begin showing up at the diner. One believes Tom is Joey, a murderer on the lam. The accusation causes a flicker in our hero's eye. He loses his balance. Stuff happens.

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The Close-up

Can Tom switch to Joey as easy as flipping a burger at Stall's Diner? Absolutely, Cronenberg argues, offering a survey course on American pop culture as proof. The bad guys at the diner are straight out of Hemingway's The Killers. The plot references Hollywood films - Out of the Past, Straw Dogs and Jimmy Stewart's 1950s westerns. Howard Shore's soundtrack recalls Aaron Copland's Billy the Kid concert suite. When the police visit, Tom and Edie assume an American Gothic pose. They're good, sober, thoughtful people. The whole town is nice. "See you in church," is how these Midwesterners say goodbye. And yet the citizens of Millbrook, Ind., are at each other's throat. Bullies patrol the streets and high-school corridors. Guns are everywhere, even the Stalls' Christian home. Edie points a shotgun at Tom. Tom swings a loaded pistol in his son's direction. And when Joey gets his hand on a weapon - look out! - blood hits the screen in curling tidal waves.

The Wrap

All of the above wouldn't mean much if A History of Violence was pious, anti-American sermonizing. Or if it had a musty, academic paper feel. But Cronenberg's film is a racing melodrama that never, not once, allows us to catch our breath. Villains Ed Harris and William Hurt are marvellous, scary fun. And there is no j'accuse here. No us and them. What do you think of all the attention I'm getting? Tom asks Edie after the film's first shootout. "In a way, I like it," his wife says. So do we. Tom always acts in self-defence. The audience cheers him on. In a sense, we all flip from Tom to Joey just as the gun explodes. Then shrink in horror when Cronenberg forces us to contemplate the grisly mess we've made.

Still, for all its goo and gore, Cronenberg sociological treatise on Bush-era America is a blazingly erotic ménage à trois. Husband Tom might be the guy Edie loves, but Joey the killer proves to be the hotter sex partner.

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