David Cronenberg has directed some of my favorite off-beat films - the masterpiece Naked Lunch, Scanners, Videodrome. I have watched these films many times and I still find them interesting. I can't really call myself a fan, however, because there are also just as many Cronenberg films out there which I found difficult to get through the first time (Crash, eXistenZ, Dead Ringers). Cronenberg enjoys creating disturbing situations and imagery, and wants to get under your skin and to stimulate your mind on as many levels as he can. In most cases, he pulls it off masterfully, but sometimes, his emphasis on the bizarre can come across as pretentious and forced.
Like a lot of very creative and intelligent people, Cronenberg sometimes leaves his signature virtually everywhere in his work. And sometimes, a director needs to make a film which does everything they want to accomplish but leaves off the signature. For example - the brilliant David Lynch showed us his ability to jump out of his own skin with Elephant Man and The Straight Story. These are still very much Lynch films, but they also appeal to the wider audience of mainstream cinema-goers. A History of Violence is, in some ways, Cronenberg's most straightforward film. A key to its success is that it is very easy to forget that you are watching a Cronenberg film, no matter how aware you are of Cronenberg's many quirks, idiosyncrasies and trademarks. It is so masterfully directed that, although the plot is not entirely unpredictable, you are right there in the action with the characters and feeling what they feel so that, though you may know what's next, you never exactly see it coming and you never know how it will take you there.
Viggo Mortensen, in his best mainstream role since Aragorn, and Maria Bello (one of the actors who made The Cooler worth watching), head an impressive cast in this adaptation of a Wagner and Locke graphic novel. Nobody in the cast slips up at all. The script is intense, realistic, and probably did nothing to make the performances easy. The plot, if described without the plot and the context created by the script, would seem somewhat absurd, but like Woody Allen's Match Point, it's absurdity does not make it impossible to believe. Editing, directing and pure performance combine to make flawless performances for this cast. Backed up by veterans Ed Harris and William Hurt, and very strongly supported by the excellent Maria Bello, Mortensen is shockingly excellent in a difficult role. I can't explain why without giving too much of the film away. Although the rest of the cast did exactly as they were supposed to, I want to single out Ashton Holmes - an actor I was completely unfamiliar with but who I will look out for in the future.
I recommend A History of Violence highly. It is one of my top five reasons for considering 2005 to have been a great year in North American film.