Thoroughly modern in its sensibility and including two of the most real sex scenes I have ever encountered on film (about which more anon), A History of Violence at the same time reminded me of such early Hollywood "gangster" films as the 1936 film, The Petrified Forest, combining action with psychology and wrapping both in an intense, compelling narrative drama.
In brief, the story concerns Viggo (yes, that Viggo) Mortensen as Tom Stall, a happily married family man, living and running a diner in a small American town. With a teenage son and a young daughter, he is not a wealthy man, but by all evidence, he is a happy one. He loves his wife and his children and appears to enjoy the life he has made for himself.
All this changes when three desperados hold up his diner at closing. Not only do they insist that Tom is actually a gangster from Philadelphia named Joey, they don't stop at robbing the place. They intend on rape and, almost certainly, murder.
And Tom Stall reveals a completely different side to himself as he takes out all three, leaving three dead bodies on the diner floor following a brief, brutal and not at all gratuitous battle. He is quickly proclaimed an American hero, his face flashed across television screens across the world - and across Philadelphia, where others too, believe they recognize the man known as Joey. It isn't long before an ominous black limousine is haunting his small town.
Beyond that, the plot follows two main themes: Is Tom Stall who he says he is and, whether or not, will he be able to deal with the vengeance meant for "Joey", and, if he survives, can he hold his family together?
For Tom Stall clearly loves his family. I mentioned that A History of Violence contains two of the best sex scenes I have ever seen on film. The first occurs early, when Tom and his wife, Edie (played by Maria Bello, an actress whose name I don't recognize, but who plays her role to perfection) manage to get an evening free of the kids.
Far from graphic, the scene nevertheless shows good sex in all its joyous, sometimes awkward, always loving splendour. Tom and Edie laugh, embrace, go down, and struggle to find the comfortable position, all while displaying the physical intensity of sex between two people who have known and loved - and still love - each other for 20 years.
The second, much later in the film, when the marriage threatens to unravel amidst the possibility that it has been build upon a foundation of lies, is brutal and intense, but still entirely real. Cronenberg shows how sex can communicate not only love, but anger and fear.
But in the sex scenes, as in the violent ones, Cronenberg shows an admirable restraint; we see only what is necessary to move the story along. There is no pornography to the violence - no lingering, loving shots of blown-off heads or balletic fight scenes - as there is no voyeuristic eroticism to the sex. Instead, we see emotions and intellect. I have seldom seen a film-maker so deftly, so subtly, follow the writer's dictum, "Show, don't tell."
Despite the theme of a man beset by evil forces, this isn't High Noon. Tom Stall's town is not one of cowards and his family stands by him without question, at least until they began to wonder if he is telling them the truth.
It is, of course, too soon to tell, but after one viewing, I have little hesitation is saying that A History of Violence is a masterpiece. Go see it; you have never seen a movie quite like it.