Tom’s Diner

If you want to believe that David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, a loose adaptation of a little-known graphic novel, is a work of damning criticism aimed at hypocritical Americans who believe that violence is the only way to achieve peace, then sure, it’s right there. If you want to view it as a commentary on the ever-diminishing line between civility and cruelty, fine. Or maybe you’ll see it as a dolled-up action-movie parody by a revered highbrow horror-show director. Whatever. It’s all of these things and none of them — likable and lamentable, furious and futile.

But Cronenberg, who has proved he can do commercial without sacrificing vision (The Fly, 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. Sometimes junk is junk, no matter how fancy the platter upon which it’s served.

As the movie opens, two guys stroll out of a motel room, hop in their convertible and make small talk about moving on. One of them goes in to pay the bill, then comes out; the other then goes in and steps over a man and woman just gutted by his partner. A shaken little girl comes out of a room, and the man tells her 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 a diner owned by Tom Stall (Mortensen), a small-town guy living the idyllic life with his postcard wife (Maria Bello) and their swell kids. Tom stalls the bad guys with a coffeepot to the face and a pistol to the gut. Tom’s a TV hero now, but the publicity brings to town more shady thugs, including scarred, one-eyed Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris), who claims that Tom inflicted his wounds back when the hero was known as Philadelphia mobster Joey Cusack.

The trailer for A History of Violence suggests that the entire film is constructed as a case of mistaken identity — real Hitchcock stuff. But Cronenberg, working from Josh Olson’s nutty screenplay, dispenses with that angle quickly, knowing that the audience won’t buy the wholesome “who, me?” argument for long from 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? Their answer, basically, is no, probably not. But they know that the question doesn’t add up to much anyway, 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: Turns out Cronenberg can make dumb, pointless movies, too.

Categories: Movies