In cosy, smalltown America, Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) quietly manages his diner and loves his two-kid family to bits. When two murderers hold up his store, he kills them both in an intense act of self-defence. Feted as a local hero, Tom's life is turned upside down and not just by the media. Soon, black-clad mobsters come calling, claiming Tom isn't Tom at all, but Joey, the missing brother of a mob-boss: why else, they ask his doubting wife, ‘is he so good at killing?'. With his identity in question and his family in the balance, a showdown is inevitable.
Sounds like a by-the-books movie. And so it is, if you want it to be. But as you'd expect from cine-philosopher Cronenberg, History is far from straightforward. It's a western, a gangster flick and a thriller rolled into one, with a dose of romance and full-on marital sex. A multi-layered musing on movie sex and violence and why we like it. You're unsettled all the way. Tom's home is so cutesy it's deliberately comic, with banal, love-you dialogue, and plangent music. Most of the script and soundtrack is so overdone you soon sense Cronenberg's having a laugh. And he is, subverting every formula he sets up. We cheer as father and son smack down the baddies and the school bullies. But the quick-cuts to missing faces and bloody noses are sobering. The powerhouse pull of History isn't the violence, it's the reaction to it – all the scenes in fact without any dialogue or soundtrack. All credit to Mortensen and particularly Maria Bello as wife Edie, whose committed performances carry the film.
Ed Harris and William Hurt add sparkle as cracking, boo-hiss baddies. And it's beautifully filmed and paced. And if History is Cronenberg-lite, it's no less affecting for that. His themes are still there – identity and the consequences for self and society when bodies are damaged, and passions let loose. History is tense, intelligent and dramatic. Refreshing rather than revolting. Expect a mainstream, Tarantino-esque movie and be mistaken.
If you like your violence neat, and lots of it, then wait for Sin City 2. While History also has a comic book origin, it's take on violence is way more mature and rewarding. It doesn't pander, it challenges. Cronenberg's is a cinema of unease not escapism. That's not just a silver screen up there. It's a mirror.