DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
David Cronenberg is a filmmaker who's built his reputation on movies that confound viewer expectations. Movies such as "Naked Lunch," "The Fly" and "Crash" subvert the line between reality and fantasy. Cronenberg's last film, "Spider," was a small-budget effort that took viewers inside an unhinged mind. His latest is a big-budget studio picture called, "A History of Violence." Once again, Cronenberg is likely to set viewers on edge. Beth Accomando of member station KPBS explains.
BETH ACCOMANDO reporting:
David Cronenberg says he's not interested in comfortable cinema.
Mr. DAVID CRONENBERG (Filmmaker): Comfort is not a great place to launch creativity from. I feel the same way about my audience, you know, that they--for an interesting experience, for a self-reflective kind of experience, comfort is not the way to go.
ACCOMANDO: But Cronenberg begins "A History of Violence" in a comfortable place, the fictional Millbrook, Indiana; a very normal, very nice Midwestern town.
Mr. CRONENBERG: This is a possible ideal that I'm showing you now and let's see what happens to it when something disrupts it.
ACCOMANDO: The disruption comes in the form of two outsiders who arrive late one night at Tom Stall's family diner.
(Soundbite of "A History of Violence")
Mr. VIGGO MORTENSEN: (As Tom Stall) Just closing up, fellas.
Unidentified Man #1: Coffee.
Mr. MORTENSEN: I'm sorry. We're closed.
Unidentified Man #1: Oh, I know that. I do know that.
(Soundbite of yelling; woman screaming)
Unidentified Man #1: Shut up!
Mr. MORTENSEN: We don't carry much cash here.
ACCOMANDO: Tom kills the intruders and becomes a media celebrity. The movie's audience applauds him as well. Filmmaker David Cronenberg makes viewers complicit in Tom's actions, says Village Voice senior film critic Jim Hoberman.
Mr. JIM HOBERMAN (Senior Film Critic, Village Voice): The audience is always being put in this peculiar position of wanting something to happen, of rooting for some kind of necessary violence, and then being shaken up or appalled when it does come to pass. It's too much. So, you know, he directs the audience the way Hitchcock used to.
ACCOMANDO: "A History of Violence" also reveals the influence of another old master, John Ford. Cronenberg looks to the primal imagery of Ford's classic American westerns.
Mr. CRONENBERG: There is the sort of the image of the homesteader protecting his house and his family and his spread with his shotgun against violent men. So there's definitely that tone and there's even a little bit of "East of Eden." You know, there's a Elia Kazan kind of w--he's there. You also have a kind of a--what appears to be an idyllic American family, and then you start to see the things that are falling apart within it.
ACCOMANDO: In "A History of Violence," the image of the local hero starts to fall apart when his very identity is challenged by an out-of-town visitor.
(Soundbite of "A History of Violence")
Mr. MORTENSEN: Sorry. Do you think we know each other?
Unidentified Man #3: You tell me.
(Soundbite of diner noises)
Mr. MORTENSEN: No, we don't know each other.
Unidentified Man #3: Come on, Joey. Cut the crap.
Mr. MORTENSEN: My name is Tom.
Unidentified Man #3: Joey Cusack. Your name is Joey Cusack. You're from Philly.
Mr. MORTENSEN: OK. Whatever.
Unidentified Man #3: Mm-hmm.
ACCOMANDO: Violence begets violence. Director David Cronenberg forces audiences to consider how much, if any of it, is really necessary. Screenwriter Josh Olson says the filmmaker also questions whether this is a typically American way to resolve issues.
Mr. JOSH OLSON (Screenwriter): I think on one level that's true. We are certainly a country with a history of violence. At the same time, I'm hard pressed to come up with a country that doesn't have a history of violence. So at the time of working on it and the way I thought about it, yeah, there was always a distinctly American thing going on. And you know, the subject of who we are, who are country is and what our national character is and how did we get here and how does being American affect who you are as an individual is something that's interesting to me.
ACCOMANDO: The very phrase `a history of violence,' as a description of someone's psychological profile or troubled past, has no equivalent in other languages, according to David Cronenberg, who's Canadian. While he does not think this is just an American problem, he does say that the story has everything to do with the US and that's what attracted him to the project.
Mr. CRONENBERG: Obviously, there are current resonances in terms of American foreign policy, you know, which is--which does also have a kind of western movie feel to it, you know. When we're attacked--you know, if the homesteader is attacked and he goes out and kills the Indian, you know, and anything is justified in self-defense. And the question of whether a peaceful, small town can exist without violence in the background that's there to support it and sustain it, these are all pretty interesting questions and they--without being overt, I think the movie is fairly political.
ACCOMANDO: Once again, David Cronenberg has introduced several layers of discomfort in his film, but the final act of subversion is that "A History of Violence" is being released as a mainstream movie in multiplexes across the US. For NPR News, this is Beth Accomando.
ELLIOTT: There are more reviews of "A History of Violence" and more on David Cronenberg's past films at our Web site, npr.org.
That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.