Flies buzz and bump against a window as a woman looks out helplessly at a scene of terrible violence on her once-placid front lawn, in her once-peaceful community. A little girl wakes up from a dream of monsters and is comforted by her loving family at the same time that another little girl walks into a murder scene to see a gun pointed at her. A teenage boy outwits a bully without getting into a fight, but then the bully comes back at him and this time won’t be stopped with a wisecrack. A woman deplores violence until her family is at risk. And a violent man is a hero or a bad guy, depending on who is watching.
This is an outstanding — and deeply unsettling exploration of the conflicts all humans have about violence, simultaneously drawn to it and frightened by it, even revolted by it. It is hard to find a movie in the list of top-grossing box office hits that is not scary or violent. Before violent movies, there were violent plays. Shakespeare wrote one where a man chopped up his enemy’s children and fed them to him in a pie and ancient Greek plays featured murder and suicide. Before plays, there were myths and legends and stories around the campfire. Violence is exciting, cathartic, ultimately (in story form), even reassuring, because (usually) justice triumphs, and, when it doesn’t, well, we’re still here, unharmed, after hearing about it.
After a Sam Shepard-esque opening scene juxtaposing understated tough talk with casual brutality, two men drive away from a cheap, dusty, isolated motel. We then meet our hero, Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen). As he comforts his little girl by telling her that there’s no such thing as monsters and picks up some trash on the windowsill of his little small-town diner before going inside to get behind the counter, we see that he is a good, loving, gentle man. When his wife decides to give him the teenage sex they never got to share by putting on a cheerleader outfit, we believe him when he says he is the luckiest man in the world.
And then — enter the menace. Our two bad men from the first scene arrive and don’t take it well when Tom politely tells them that the diner is closed. One of them points a gun at a waitress and Tom slams a coffee pot into the other’s face and leaps over the counter to go after the other one. Tom is injured, but the men are dead. And Tom is a hero. He sits on the side of the hospital bed, waiting to be picked up by his wife Edie (Maria Bello), looking a little balefully at the television screen as his face is on every newscast. He is a hero.
And then — enter a bigger menace. A man with a terribly scarred face and a squad of tough-looking goons comes to the diner. He insists that Tom is really someone named Joey from Philadelphia. Tom politely explains that the man must be mistaken, but, even after being warned off by the sheriff, he will not be deterred.
Tom’s teenage son Jack (Ashton Holmes) is proud of his father for protecting the town, but it makes him question his own non-violent response to the high school bully. Tom is his example of what it means to be a man. When we first see Jack and Tom they are tenderly comforting Jack’s little sister. But now he has another side of his father to think about and another example to follow.
Edie knows her husband very well and is certain he has nothing to do with the man with the scary scar. But then he asks her, “How come he’s so good at killing people?” and she begins to wonder whether, deep inside her gentle, loving husband there is a volatile, violent man named Joey.
The performances are gorgeously expressive. Bello and Mortensen are real, heartfelt, drawing us deep into the characters’ lives until we feel we know them, then surprising us, but always perfectly integrated to keep us connected to the characters. In the more outsize bad guy roles, Stephen McHattie, Ed Harris, and William Hurt find the strength in unsettlingly understated performances that convey the coiled anger inside them, ready to spring. Director David Cronenberg beautifully frames each shot, each scene, to lead us to ask ourselves whether there is a Joey inside anyone we know — whether there is a Joey inside each of us, whether we need him there. Enter an even bigger menace — as Pogo used to say “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Parents should know that this is an extremely violent movie with intense and brutal fighting and gunplay, a child in peril, and graphic images of wounded and dead bodies. Characters use very strong language, including crude insults. There are explicit sexual references and exceptionally explicit sexual situations, including one that involves force. Characters drink and smoke and teenagers smoke marijuana.
Families who see this movie should talk about the way it ties together many different threads and themes about the role of violence in our lives and the way we feel both drawn to it and revolted by it. The movie also raises questions about the way we see our families — as harbors of safety and as places of danger. Families may want to talk about their own experiences with violence.
Families who enjoy this film will also enjoy classics about peace-loving men in a violent world, High Noon, The Friendly Persuasion, and Destry Rides Again. They will also appreciate Crash, which explores the insidious role of racism and violence in modern life. This movie covers only a portion of the graphic novel that it is based on, so families who enjoy this film should take a look at the book by John Wagner and Vince Locke.