Anything can be anything to anybody, particularly in the case of David Cronenberg's A History of Violence. If you want to believe that his new film, a loose adaptation of a little-known graphic novel, is a work of damning criticism aimed at the hypocrisy of Americans who believe violence is the only way to achieve peace, sure, yup, it's right there. If you want to view it as a commentary on the fine, ever-diminishing line between civility and cruelty and absolute chaos, yeah, got that too. Or if you want to see it as a dolled-up parody of a slam-bang action-thriller vehicle piloted by a revered highbrow horror-show director whose existence on the set lends it credibility, sure, whatever you want. It's all of those things and none of those things -- as likable as it is lamentable, as furious as it is futile, as purposeful as it is pointless. It is whatever you want it to be, owing in no small part to the fact that Cronenberg, maker of masterpieces that go unwatched and unwanted (the solemn and gripping Spider comes to mind, if not yours), has earned the right to be taken seriously even when he comes at you brandishing a sharp stick topped with a dollop of cotton candy.
But Cronenberg, who has proven he can do commercial without sacrificing vision (The Dead Zone, The Fly and Dead Ringers), is better than this movie about a man (Lord of the Rings' Viggo Mortensen) who isn't what he seems to be but is exactly who we think he is. It feels like something beneath him, this gag in which a serene man uncorks so much blood when pushed by evil men intending to do evil things. Sometimes junk is junk, no matter how fancy the platter upon which it's served.
Which isn't to say A History of Violence is useless junk. It provides a few pleasures and a few giggles; it's a comedy, after all, an action movie in which things unfold at a deadpan pace, and one co-starring William Hurt in a mobster role so over-the-top, you're surprised he doesn't need oxygen to sustain himself in the thin air up there. Even Cronenberg has advised us not to view this too seriously, insisting that it's not to be taken as tongue-in-cheek but as an outright goof, please. Perhaps all the praise heaped upon the film along the tony film-fest circuit comes from critics wanting to believe it's more, not less, than it really is; no way it's just this goofy, grisly little movie about a man running from his past who winds up getting stuck in the muck of shotgunned guts lying all over his café floor, right? Well, now that you mention it...
The movie opens like a buddies-on-the-road movie: Two guys, one lean and mean in a black jacket and the other soft and simple in a white T-shirt, stroll out of a motel room, hop in their convertible, make small talk about moving on. The man in black goes in to pay the bill, then comes out; the dude in white then goes in and steps over a man and woman just gutted by his partner. To both it's just no big deal, like the bodies aren't even there -- In Cold Blood, perhaps, being the point of reference here. A shaken little girl comes out of a room, and the man tells her it's OK, all's well, then pops a bullet into her head like she's a Coke can at 50 paces. Then they're off and down the road, to a small town full of easy cash for the taking.
There they run into Tom's diner, Tom being Tom Stall (Mortensen), a small-town guy living the idyllic life with his postcard wife (Maria Bello), whose idea of a night out is dressing like a cheerleader and shaking her pom-poms at Tom, and their swell kids, high-school bully-magnet Jack (Ashton Holmes) and preteen cutie-pie Sarah (Heidi Hayes). Tom stalls the bad guys with a coffee pot to the face and a pistol to the gut; Cronenberg just loves showing the carnage too, the trembling bits of flesh dangling off shattered bone. Tom's a hero now, a media darling on TV 24/7, but the attendant publicity brings to town more shady thugs, including scarred, one-eyed Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris), who claims Tom inflicted his wounds back when Tom was known as Philadelphia mobster Joey Cusack. Tom claims he's got the wrong man, mister, but Carl's not to be dissuaded, and it doesn't take so long to figure who's telling the truth.
The trailer for A History of Violence suggests the entire film is constructed as a case of mistaken identity -- real Hitchcock stuff, North by Northwest set in an Indiana paradise. But Cronenberg, working from Josh Olson's nutty screenplay, dispenses with that angle quickly, knowing the audience won't buy the wholesome "who, me?" argument for long when mewled by a guy who wields a shotgun far better than a spatula. The filmmakers aren't interested in that lousy tease anyway, just the ramifications of it: Can a man truly change, they wonder, before offering the answer that, well, no, probably not. But they know theirs is a shrug of a question, so they distract and amuse rather than labor over it. They'd rather you laugh with them than at them. Come to think of it, a man can change, after all: Turns out Cronenberg can make dumb, pointless movies, too. As well as anyone.