Cinema Signal:

"Lynch on Lynch"
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. "A History of Violence"

Sometimes, there's no escaping your past, nor where you've come from. When that includes the skill set of a mob assassin, and circumstances call upon your ability to defend your life, the revelation of your full identity can become life-threatening. Master of mental horror David Cronenberg dramatizes the idea in a well crafted story.

It starts in a way that can't be more deceptively quiet, slow, almost silly in its sense of understated triviality. The camera moves across the blank exterior walls of a third-rate motel. It passes a door, then a chair, then a door, etc., coming to rest on one door in particular.

Two men emerge (Stephen McHattie and Greg Bryk) and carry on a banter that suggests a strange relationship. There's no emotion here, but a sense of dominance and the formality of an uneven partnership. The older man goes into the office to take care of the bill and emerges minutes later. He forgot something inside. We follow the younger man inside as he looks for it. Almost besides the point, we see two people lying on the floor in pools of blood. But when a little girl comes out of a bedroom, the man is astonished and pulls his automatic.

Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), when we first see him, is a model of mildness and respect, running his main street diner with regard for everyone, and most especially for his loving wife Edie (Maria Bello), teenage son Jack (Ashton Holmes) and little Sarah (Heidi Hayes). Director Cronenberg goes to great pains (and graphic pleasures) to demonstrate the complete lovelife this couple enjoys.

Then, one day, our two murderous drifters enter the diner, needing money, making outlandish demands, and deteriorating civility in a confrontation Tarantino ("Reservoir Dogs") might have inspired. When Tom tries to defuse the tension before it escalates, and tells his waitress to leave, her exit is blocked and a gun is pulled. Tom goes into green beret mode and, after incapacitating the thugs with an explosion of precision moves and power, ends the threat by killing them.

His heroism is acclaimed in the media, both local and national, while Tom modestly refuses to accept praise for what he'd like to convince everyone was merely something anyone might have done in the circumstances. But, it's enough to bring Sheriff Sam Carney (Peter MacNeill) calling on the Stalls to ask Tom if he's in some witness protection program, or something. Which Tom denies and Edie thinks is preposterous.

But when Carl Fogaty (Ed Harris) arrives in his black sedan with his little gang of suited sidekicks, and sits down for some talk with Tom, you know the mob has arrived. Carl reads the papers, and when Tom's puss appeared as prime feature news all over the country, well, a visit was in order. Fogaty addresses Tom as Joey. He's not about to forget the guy who did some violence to his face with barbed wire and nearly blinded him some years ago. But, it's not only about that. Richie Cusack (William Hurt), Tom's brother and mob boss, would like a word back in Philadelphia.

When horror-meister David Cronenberg chooses to make a mob movie you can expect it to take form from a uniquely characterized perspective. After a grossout study of a man turning into an insect ("The Fly") and the morbid immersion in psychosis of "Spider,", you could say the mainstream quality of this, his latest film, is a departure that could win fans and influence critics.

He demonstrates a major sense of storytelling, beginning with strong, fascinating personalities. Sharp casting and depth of acting follow. Mortensen is a fascinating figure of a man whose great struggle in life is to be as good a man as he can be, holding love, family, respect and atonement as his truer values.

In a part that might have been played by a score of actresses, Maria Bello invests her role with a rich capacity for passion and sensuality. For me, individuality reserves her a place alongside Naomi Watts, Nicole Kidman and Merrill Streep in a lineup of most creative female talent. To watch this pair in action is to find yourself glued to your seat.

The supporting cast is operating on all cylinders, as well. Ed Harris in the modality of a sociopathic mobster with a sense of humor and laid back style of terror is choice, even though the originality of it might be less so. A bearded William Hurt shows up in a role that, in an earlier day, would have belonged to Brando, thence to Rip Torn: the Capo who relishes his own heartlessness as he dominates a criminal empire.

But, given the unique perspective this movie set for itself, I feel that its lack of ambition to become something of wider "significance" focuses the enjoyment of its tough good guy satisfactions, Howard Shores canny score, and shrewd story innovation. It's worth some applause.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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