Viggo Mortenson plays Tom Stall, the owner of a diner in a small run of the mill American town somewhere in the Midwest, who, on the surface at least, is living out the American Dream. He has a loving wife, Edie (Maria Bello) who likes to dress up in cheerleader outfits when they have sex. He has his cute baby girl who has nightmares about monsters, and a teenage son learning about his nascent masculinity, by winning in baseball and taking on the school bully.
The mood, aided by Howard Shore’s upbeat soundtrack is that of innocence and joy. But this is a Cronenberg movie and he isn’t interested in light, but in the shadows where Tom Stall’s baby daughter’s monsters live. The film opens with a duo of two-bit criminals leaving a motel after killing the owners and their daughter. You know they’re coming to Stall’s town its just a matter of when. That opening sequence laces the atmosphere of joy and small town bliss with a cancerous miasma of foreboding, - you know darkness is coming.
When it comes, the violence is fast, shocking and above all bloody as hell. Its no secret, if you’ve seen the trailer, that Tom single handedly kills both of the criminals when they attempt to hold up his diner. Overnight he becomes a local hero hitting all of the nationwide press.
One of the themes of this movie is violence has consequence, even when its done out of the best of intentions, like a fire, its hunger is insatiable – violence begets violence no matter who is involved. Shortly after the incident Ed Harris’s Carl Fogarty character appears in town, acting his most menacing with a scarred one-eye visage wrapped up in a standard criminal black suit. He tells Tom that they know each other and that his real name is not Tom. It triggers a series of events that start to destroy the life Tom Stall has built with his family.
This movie enjoys challenging the conventions of this genre. We’re dealing with a man who may not appear to be what he seems, facing a ghost from the past. Usually this would all be resolved in the final third act of the movie. However Cronenberg plays with the usual conventions of the genre by bringing everything to ahead by the end of the second act. As I said earlier in this review, Cronenberg appears to be more interested into the psychological effects on the characters rather than solely focusing on plot. Following the Ed Harris incident we watch the sexually violent breakdown of the family, as they question exactly who Tom Stall is or who he isn’t. Mortensen delivers a subtle, unsettling performance. You’re never quite sure who he really is, whether he’s actually repressing memory, or is in fact an extremely convincing liar. Bello turns in an equally strong performance as Edie and the pair of them certainly sizzle with sexual chemistry in their frequent bouts of graphic sex.
Ultimately the movie switches a little bit too much into conventional thriller/action mode in the final sequence, with an excellent cameo role by William Hurt. After all this is based on a crime story comic book, and you need violence in a movie with violence in the actual title, you’d be short-changing the audience by not giving them some violence, you know? Nevertheless Cronenberg’s coda to the film is unresolved and deeply unsettling in a wordless final scene.