Untitled Document What’s the opposite of dysfunctional? Functional? Well, the Stalls, a husband, wife, son and daughter living in a Norman Rockwell Midwest, have to be the uber-functional American clan. Gathered around the dining table, or readying for the day in their sunny kitchen, the four are full of casual affection, good-natured joshing, smiles, kisses.

And this being a David Cronenberg film – and one of his strongest and sneakiest – you know something is terribly wrong.

A History of Violence, which stars Viggo Mortensen (back from Middle-earth) as mild-mannered diner owner Tom Stall, and Maria Bello as his loving lawyer wife, Edie, is ostensibly less extreme than previous Cronenberg forays. Guns aren’t made of gristle and bone (eXistenZ), neck braces aren’t deployed as erotic accessories (1996’s Crash), typewriters don’t talk back (Naked Lunch), and insects don’t buzz around with mutated Jeff Goldblum heads (1986’s remake of The Fly).

That said, A History of Violence gets pretty freaky, as all the things we’re led to believe about Tom Stall are cast in doubt – and all the things that his wife and children have been led to believe, too.

Cronenberg begins this creepy gem of a thriller with a couple of roving psychos, fresh from a motel checkout that will require a serious amount of cleaning up. These two guys, who must have read the In Cold Blood picture book when they were wee ones, blow into Millbrook, Ind., looking for money, and looking to cause harm.

Tom is closing up the diner when this shiftless duo arrives. The men draw guns, and menace a waitress, and the heretofore unassuming Tom goes into action-hero mode, putting moves on the killers that are the stuff of Hong Kong chop-socky fests. His unexpected bravery and prowess, as he brings down the fugitives, gets him on the TV news. He’s a small-town hero, a brave soul who risked his life to save others, and who killed two homicidal maniacs in clear, clean self-defense.

Tom’s newfound celebrity attracts attention, and soon a weird stranger with a mottled face comes calling. This limo-driven mystery man (Ed Harris) insists that Tom isn’t who he says he is, that he has business back east (in Philadelphia, as it happens). Tom tells the fellow that he’s mistaken, that he must be thinking of somebody else. Tom’s wife (Bello is terrific, in a subtly shaded performance), Tom’s teenage son (Ashton Holmes), and even the local sheriff back up his story.

A story about identity, about family, about how we define who we are – and, as the title suggests, an examination of the role violence plays in our society – Cronenberg’s movie is eerily compelling and darkly humorous. And chilling – to the bone.

Grade: C+

—Steven Rea (KRT)

© 2005, The Philadelphia Inquirer.

A History of Violence is currently in theaters.