Smart and compelling, A History of Violence is not for kids. David Cronenberg's film -- based on John Wagner and Vince Locke's graphic novel -- moves with a deliberate, sometimes difficult slowness, featuring sets and performances as such, not quite real, more emblems than lived-in experiences. Each moment seems equally strange, fragile and vaguely artificial. History soon breaks open into a meditation not only on sensationalism and violence, but also, and more emphatically, on identity and masculinity, as these notions are entangled in U.S. self-puffing mythology. The plot problem has to do with Tom's re-identification: is he lying when he denies being Joey? Is Carl mistaken? And how else to explain Tom's killer skills?
The movie examines the slippage between myth and realism. While it's easy to be thrilled by the hard-hitting and frequently explosive action (fantastic action-movie action), the film also asks you to step back and contemplate the ideals, costs, and bodies in play. Tom's mutation into a killer is surely startling. And Edie's struggle to believe him and also to protect her children is surely poignant (Bello is stunning). But the more crucial point has to do with what you want to see: a revenge picture, a familial resolution, a heroic triumph, a just punishment, or maybe some hysterical combination of all. If A History of Violence is, to some extent, a history of U.S. excesses and self-images, it is also a critique of unself-conscious consumption of same