Oscar voters, start your engines. A History of Violence is award-worthy, and not because it's big or self-important-it's neither—but because it's one terrific movie. A crackling suspense tale of a small-town diner owner whose past may be far more complicated than his family or neighbors know, it's a look at how people reinvent them-selves and adapt, as well as a sly meditation on movie conventions.
Family man Tom Stall (Mortensen) contentedly spends his days pouring coffee and dishing pie at a cafe he owns in Millbrook, Ind. He and his sexy lawyer wife, Edie (Bello), are pillars of their community. When two murderous thugs hold up his diner and threaten customers, Tom, operating on instinct, disarms and kills them both. National TV-news shows crown him a hero, but soon an unsavory gangster (Harris) shows up in Millbrook and threatens Tom, insisting that the hash slinger once slung deadlier weapons.
Directed with visceral flair by David Cronenberg (Spider), Violence delivers all the pulpy satisfactions of an old-fashioned thriller while providing viewers with plenty to chew on afterward. Its characters keep revealing unexpected sides of them-selves. And did I mention that the sex scenes-there are two of them, each wildly different in tone—are as hot as anything onscreen in years? Mortensen, out from under his Lord of the Rings stringy long hair and beard, gives a nuanced, pitch-perfect performance, and Bello is equally impressive. Harris, sporting a disfigured face, is all menacing wit as a bad guy, while Hurt shows up late in the film for a bravura turn. This History lesson is not to be missed. (R)