It seems Canadian auteur David Cronenberg has finally hit upon the right balance of sex and violence for American audiences. Sex, violence and a certain perverted sensibility have always been his trademarks. Here, working from a script by Josh Olson (based on a graphic novel by Vince Locke and John Wagner), he delivers a movie that is both sensationalist and understated, a powerful drama about the inevitability of violence.

Read more about A History of Violence…A History of Violence is — similar to the recent Korean alt-cult movie Oldboy — a revenge story told from the point of view of the revengee. Viggo Mortenson’s folksy Tom is no victim to the mobsters that harass him, however, though his fear makes him deceptively human. In the end, all that separates him from a life of foul deeds is the simple will to be good; the tragedy is that his will is not enough to make him good. In many ways the film can be read as a justification of violence, even as support for the war on terrorism. I’ll let other critics fall into that trap, and speak only of the filmmaking.

The acting in Cronenberg’s movies that I’ve seen has been hit-or-miss. He often seems more interested in the ideas that his scenes evoke, rather than the characters. Here, however, he coaches top-flight performances from Mortenson, Maria Bello (playing Tom’s wife), Ed Harris (delectably creepy) and John Hurt (who is already garnering Oscar buzz for a godfather-like turn). If the Friday night audience at the Burbank AMC is any indication, he’s been successful in getting the audience invested in the characters.

The film has a few misfires. Some early scenes that showed a too-perfect marriage were almost gaggable; and the teenage bully subplot lacked the psychological depth brought to the rest of the story. Still, compared to last weekend’s number one movie, the walking plot hole known as Flightplan, the choice for filmgoers of intelligence is clear.

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