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Film review: 'History of Violence' a gripping drama/thriller

Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello star in the film "A History of Violence."
Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello star in the film "A History of Violence."
Takashi Seida,

A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE — *** — Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris; rated R (violence, gore, profanity, sex, brief nudity, vulgarity).

As promised by its title, "A History of Violence" is a violent film. However, it's not nonstop-violent and graphic, as are some of the more over-the-top works of David Cronenberg.

After all, this is a guy who lingered on scenes of exploding heads in 1981's "Scanners."

But when it is violent, there's a viciousness here that recalls "Frank Miller's Sin City," but with a more lethal and realistic (non-cartoonish) feel to it.

What's surprising is how much more effective the non-violent scenes are in this dramatic suspense-thriller. The threat of impending violence looms, which makes for sometimes gripping viewing.

The film is based on a series of graphic novels by writer John Wagner and artist Vince Locke, and follows Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), a hard-working businessman living in a small Indiana town. Tom seems to be mild-mannered as well, but he shows a completely different side when two men try to rob his diner. Tom is forced to deal with them, and, as a result, both would-be robbers wind up dead.

Tom is hailed as a hero in the community, but his actions only lead to bigger problems. A gangster named Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) shows up in town, claiming that Tom is actually Joey Cusack, a man with a criminal past in Philadelphia.

While Tom tries to figure out how to deal with all of this, his family members have begun to question how well they really know him, especially his wife (Maria Bello) and their teenage son (Ashton Holmes), who looks up to him.

This is some of Cronenberg's strongest work since his 1983 adaptation of Stephen King's "The Dead Zone." Though a few scenes are stomach-churning (he still can't resist the close-ups of gory moments), it's hard to look away.

The cast members are all very good. Mortensen is very convincing as both the family man and the man of action, and his on-screen pairing with Bello is very believable. Harris and William Hurt both get their moments to shine as the villains of the piece, and relative newcomer Holmes (from TV's "One Life to Live") more than holds his own with his more-experienced co-stars.

"A History of Violence" is rated R for strong scenes of violence (shootings, fisticuffs, a stabbing and violence against women), some graphic gore, occasional use of strong sexual profanity, simulated sex and other sexual contact, brief full female nudity, partial male nudity, and some sexually suggestive talk and crude sexual references. Running time: 96 minutes.