Presiding benevolently over the lunch and dinner crowds behind the counter of his diner, Viggo Mortensen's character in A History Of Violence may not have come from the small Indiana town he calls home, but it could have easily summoned him into existence. A walking model of Midwestern modesty, easy humor, and quiet strength, he frowns at the Pepsi cans left on his doorstep, then lets his frustration fade as he greets his customers. At home, he's earned the respect and love of his two children (high-schooler Ashton Holmes and the moppet-like Heidi Hayes) and kept the affection of wife Maria Bello, who, early in the film, plans a kids-free evening around a newly acquired cheerleader costume. Even the sex couldn't be more wholesome.
But sometimes wholesome people have to perform unwholesome deeds for the greater good. That's the logic behind every act of self-defense, and it's applied by Mortensen when he swiftly dispatches two thrill-killers who stop in to terrorize his customers one night. It's also the logic used to justify war. Director David Cronenberg leaves that connection unspoken, but it's pretty clear from the start that his excursion into the American heartland has more on its mind than portraying a simple act of heroism. The film keeps finding the violent underpinnings of everyday life wherever it looks, from the if-it-bleeds-it-leads news coverage that makes Mortensen a local hero, to the social structure of Holmes' high school and—eventually and most disturbingly—to the private moments where one kind of passion can become entangled with another.
Not that Mortensen has a lot of time to contemplate this. He's too busy dealing with the unexpected arrival of some more violent characters led by a scarred Ed Harris, who, drawn by Mortensen's new celebrity, shows up making some strange claims. Mortensen assures everyone that they're mistaken, but their persistence and their threats to his family keep forcing the issue.
Adapting a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke from a screenplay by Josh Olson, Cronenberg works from pure pulp material, and he respects his film's needs to deliver the thriller goods. He's also too expert a filmmaker not to sneak in some other stuff. He shoots in an austere style that doesn't flinch when the action gets heated, as if demanding that the audiences waiting for that action get a good look at what they think they want to see. But he gets most graphic with his characters' emotions. Ed Harris and William Hurt deliver inspired turns as the villains, but the movie is as much about a marriage thrown into crisis as the bad guys who spur it. Bello and Mortensen convey a sense of lived-in intimacy that gets stretched to the point of breaking. Blood gets spilled as the plot takes twists and turns, but the real suspense comes from the sense that should the bond between the couple break, its snap will be the most destructive act Cronenberg could film.