I always give David Cronenberg the benefit of the doubt thanks to his 1986 sci-fi masterpiece The Fly, but with that benefit comes a certain degree of expectation that he will deliver a great film. Coupled with Viggo Mortensen - an actor you can generally expect a decent performance from - you have a duo that can't really fail to deliver an entertaining film. At least that's what I thought.
A History of Violence follows Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) as he goes about his unassuming and modest life working in a diner. He lives in a nice house and has a loving caring family and the film goes to great lengths to rub in just how perfect (yet modest!) his existence is, before one fateful day. About to close up one night, his diner is harassed by two small-time criminals who threaten to execute one of his employees. In a moment of adrenaline fuelled violence, Mortensen's character saves the day and waxes his would be assailants.
The ensuing TV coverage elevates him to hero status amongst the quiet townspeople, but he still tries to shy away from the press coverage. Unfortunately, this exposure also brings him to the attention of a Mafioso from out of town, who is certain that Tom is not who he claims to be. His life is then predisposed with sinister interactions with Ed Harris' character, which culminate in another explosive display of violence as Tom attempts to protect himself and his family from the gangster threat.
The movie fails to break through the 'average' barrier because of several different reasons. From the moment Ed Harris' mobster rolls into town you know for a fact that Tom isn't who he says he is. There is never really any chance that this could be a case of mistaken identity, or a revenge killing for the two crooks who bungled the robbery days before. From then in it is a fairly predictable affair.
Secondly, the movie does have some exceptionally cheesy moments - particularly every scene involving Tom's son, Jack. Jack is bullied at school for the most obscene reason (he caught a baseball during a game of baseball) and rapidly transforms to a snivelling victim into a fightin' machine when he is pushed too far. The high school scenes don't really appear realistic at all, and I think that lets the film down - Jack probably could've been edited out of the entire picture without any great detriment to the plot. Come the end of the film, it's difficult to really empathise with Tom after he has admitted his despicable past, but the ending itself is also a severe anticlimax.
At the end of the day, A History of Violence will be remembered for a particularly brutal scene where Tom defends himself from the mob on his front lawn. Nothing else is really memorable enough, particularly the characters. I honestly thought from the DVD description on the box that I would be left mildly scarred from the watching experience and that it would be difficult to re-watch the film because of profound violence or wrecked lives (in a similar way that American History X or Requiem for a Dream are difficult to watch over again). Instead it seems Cronenberg has just gone for a bitesize film that compromises integrity in order to fit into the magic 90 minute timespan that many Hollywood films seem to strive for these days.