A History of Violence is a hollow story from an empty graphic novel. Amaster - Canada's David Cronenberg - has directed it.
But all he can do with the material is turn it into a clinic on movie mayhem. You want to learn the different ways an audience can react to splattered brains and shattered bodies? This is for you: Carnage For Art Houses, 101.
Viggo Mortensen plays a seemingly perfect small-town father and husband, devoted to his wife - luscious lawyer Maria Bello - and determined to raise their son, Ashton Holmes, to be strong and gentle. When two cold-blooded burglar-assassins try to hold up the diner he owns on Main Street, he manages to kill them before they execute him and rape his waitress and murder her and his grill man.
Mortensen rouses adrenaline-charged cheers when he turns the tables on the bad guys. But Cronenberg keeps the spectacle ghastly with quick, jarring glimpses of the bodily damage.
And the director, like his lead character, maintains an odd quiet in the aftermath. He suckers you into believing that you're seeing a harrowing, sardonic picture about the effect that even righteous bloodletting can have on a virtuous existence.
That premise starts to collapse when Ed Harris shows up and gives a virtuoso grotesque performance as a scarred mobster from Philadelphia. He contends that he knew Mortensen in a different identity as a crazed underworld hit man. Harris won't let his target or the man's family rest until Viggo 'fesses up. Each of the subsequent long sequences culminates in killing sprees that elicit ever-queasier shocks and, in contrast, outright belly laughs. (In the final sequence, William Hurt matches Harris as a bravura bad guy, then soars into the black-comic stratosphere.) The most ridiculous outbreak occurs when Holmes, the soul of restraint, delivers a beating to a high school bully that sends the little thug into a hospital. Is the message that violence is catching, even hereditary?
Despite one or two live-wire interchanges, the movie is like a skilled art-school experiment. It alters viewers' reactions to slaughter as they gain new information about the context for the violence. As far as actual drama goes, Cronenberg may as well be rolling out a skeleton hanging for Halloween - the tricky structure precludes the actors from putting any meat on their characters' bones.
Cronenberg and Mortensen both display a sure, fleet touch with action, and Bello breathes a whiff of humanity into the proceedings as a woman who'll do anything for a spouse she believes to be ideal. The stars deliver the most playful and uninhibited sex scene between a husband and wife in recent movies. But when Cronenberg contrasts that bit with a sadistic intimate scene later on, he gets bad laughs. Having squandered away his running time on intellectualized jolts, Cronenberg ends his movie where the possibility of depth begins, with the family around the dinner table.
Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs grappled honestly with every man's potential for destruction. A History of Violence just sets up straw men and burns them down.
A History of Violence (New Line Cinema)
Starring Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello.
Directed by David Cronenberg.
Rated R. Time 96 minutes.