It is this same mild-mannered family man who, a few days later, displays a hitherto unsuspected aptitude for quick, violent action when he bravely slays two ruthless criminals who attempt to hold up his diner. The act turns Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) into an unwilling hero in his peaceful Indiana town, and it’s there that his real troubles begin.
Vengeful Philadelphia mobster Fogarty (a genuinely menacing Ed Harris) catches the human interest story and tracks Tom down, convinced that Tom is really Joey Cusack, the gangster responsible for the hideous scars on Fogarty’s face. Tom assures him that he has the wrong man, but Fogarty won’t budge, and goes to greater and greater lengths to get his revenge on the man he thinks is Joey. Even as Tom’s family and friends stand up for him, Fogarty manages to sow seeds of doubt into their heads. Why, wonders one of Tom’s friends, would a professional criminal be willing to put his own neck on the line to seek Tom out unless he were absolutely certain of Tom’s identity?
It’s the uneasy tension and slow but powerful emotional shifts in the first half that makes “Violence” such a memorable film. It’s difficult, both for us and for the people in the film, to reconcile Tom’s sweet, soft-spoken persona with his obvious ability to kill. A strong cast draws out the complexities in each character and in each relationship. Mortensen and Maria Bello, as Tom’s beautiful wife Edie, give nuanced but daring performances that tell us everything we could possibly want to know about their characters’ marriage, and newcomer Ashton Holmes does a capable turn as Tom’s easy-going teenage son Jack. As Fogarty pushes his way into the Stalls’ lives, each and every little change registers onscreen, subtly but undeniably.
Following an intense climax midway through the film, the focus changes slightly from the Stall family to Tom and his supposedly bloody past. William Hurt steps in for a brief but remarkable role as Joey’s oily Mob boss brother, and the action sequences are kicked up a notch. The second half is more viscerally exciting than the first, although it just barely fails to live up to the first part.
Nevertheless, Cronenberg knows how to deliver violence, and he gives us exactly what we want-even as he is questioning our fascination with sadistic brutality. Fight sequences are seamlessly choreographed, and ghastly wounds are unflinchingly-voyeuristically, actually-shot.
Cronenberg poses several difficult questions in “Violence,” and rather than answer them, he gives us plenty of material so we can mull over it ourselves. What is the correlation between eroticism and sadism? A fierce sex scene between Tom and Edie connects the dots without filling in the whole picture. What is the difference between good violence and bad? Compare Fogarty’s nasty actions with Tom’s heroic but equally ferocious ones. How is the instinct for aggression transferred from generation to generation? Skinny, passive Jack’s trials with school bullies are juxtaposed with his father’s fights with criminals.
This is what makes “Violence” a meaty, intelligent film rather than merely an entertaining one (though it is that too). The questions linger long after the effect of the slick action sequences have passed.