Sexual depravity, reality bleeding into fantasy, flesh fusing with technology... whatever it takes to liberate his protagonists from societal repression. David Cronenberg doesn’t do mainstream. Proof? His biggest hit to date showcases Jeff Goldblum’s gloopy metamorphosis into a misshapen bug. With this in mind, it’s time to take a deep breath. A History Of Violence is, on the surface, a disconcertingly conventional film. It’s adapted from a graphic novel. It trades in archetypes, plot and character. There are two hungry love scenes, but they’re between husband and wife (Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello, both excellent), nary an underarm sex organ or gaping, glistening leg wound in sight. Watch Violence with half an eye and you might as well be viewing any one of a hundred Westerns or 200 bottom-shelf actioners in which a good-hearted family man gets sucked into conflict.
But here’s the thing: Violence is a film of hidden depths, its tumultuous themes swirling under a cool, placid surface. On one level it’s about identity (now there’s a Cronenbergian theme), Mortensen’s genial Tom forced to embrace his dark side when an East Coast gangster (Ed Harris) arrives to threaten his kindred. On another it’s a film about small-town America – friends, family, community – the director showing us the picture postcard image before zooming in on the cracks and creases. But most of all it’s a movie about violence. Lots of violence, gouts of blood bursting from torn flesh to give birth to the pregnant menace swelling from every frame.
As in Crash, the carnage is short, sharp and real, the flipside of Hollywood’s glamorised slo-mo. It’s also troubling, the Canadian auteur ensuring that each and every incident – right down to Tom’s teenage son (Ashton Holmes) lashing back at school bullies – is defensible. Necessary, even. By making us whoop, Cronenberg makes us complicit. And while that’s alarming enough, he isn’t ready to let us off with a few moral niggles. Think about it: a community fighting back against an outside force, mauling and killing in the name of justice. There’s a microcosmic metaphor at play here, complex and perturbing. Now who said Cronenberg was going mainstream?