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Originally published Friday, September 23, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Movie review

A way of life where violence is the norm

Tom Spall (Viggo Mortensen) is a laid-back fellow, living a quiet life in the kind of small Midwestern town where people end conversations...

Seattle Times movie critic

Tom Spall (Viggo Mortensen) is a laid-back fellow, living a quiet life in the kind of small Midwestern town where people end conversations with "See you at church."

He owns the local diner and chats up the regulars in a low-key way; pouring the coffee and keeping the place tidy. When a pair of on-the-run criminals enter the diner, bent on killing whoever gets in their way, Tom's response is slow, even lackadaisical — as if there's really no need to do anything, since what's happening can't be real. And then, quicker than a blink, he shoots and kills them.

Early on in David Cronenberg's gripping drama "A History of Violence," the invasion of violence into everyday life becomes the norm. (In a prologue that introduces the soon-to-be-killed convicts, the camera slowly pans across the bodies of their most recent victims, quiet and ignored.) The movie's running time is continually punctuated by orgies of gunfire; you become desensitized to it, and intentionally so.

Movie review 3 stars


Showtimes and trailer

"A History of Violence," with Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, Ashton Holmes, William Hurt. Directed by David Cronenberg, from a screenplay by Josh Olson, based on a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke. 97 minutes. Rated R for strong brutal violence, graphic sexuality, nudity, language and some drug use. Meridian.

Despite the blood, the film follows Cronenberg's marvelous "Spider" in finding its true horror in the dark corners of the mind. Tom's life is changed by the incident, on many levels. His son (Ashton Holmes), who's been facing his own demons with a bully at school, wonders how this changes the message of tolerance his father has always given him.

His wife, Edie (Maria Bello), eyes her husband differently; first as a hero, then with an increased fear of something else. And a strange newcomer (Ed Harris, biting into a bad-guy role with gusto), with a cloudy eye and a menacing manner, shows up in town, convinced that he has a score to settle with Tom.

Mortensen, playing a man who's infinitely more complicated than the movie's bucolic opening scenes suggest, gives a subtle, understated performance, letting us see his blue eyes slowly grow chilly.

This is a movie about secrets, about how violence begets violence, and about the domino effect that a gunshot can create. For Cronenberg, it's a bit of a step back from "Spider"; its twists aren't always surprising, and its messages can easily get lost under all the gunfire.

But it's made with intelligence and a genuine sense of dread; this is an artful movie hiding in action/thriller clothing. Late in the film, the blood billows under yet another corpse's head, glowing silver in the moonlight. The cycle has ended ... or has it?

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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