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A History of Violence: that might be the title of a sociological treatise on America and its films. Actually, it's the name of a smart new melodrama written by Josh Olson (from a well-known graphic novel) and made by director David Cronenberg. The movie sees gunplay infecting a series of peaceful small-town settings: a quiet motel, a friendly diner, the home of the most honorable citizen in Millbrook, Ind. He is Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), and he enjoys an idyllic life with his lovely, loving wife (Maria Bello) and their two kids. When Tom uses some surprisingly expert moves to defend his diner, he becomes a local hero. His sudden, splendid fame attracts the attention of some out-of-town gangsters (led by Ed Harris) who seem to have mistaken Tom for one Johnny Cusack, a hit man back in Philly.
Is this a movie with a Hitchcockian "wrong man" theme? Or is it a takeoff on countless westerns (like The Gunfighter) about a retired gunman trying to outlive his old notoriety? Suffice to say that Cronenberg both criticizes the poison of violence and acknowledges its lure as a way of solving problems. Beyond that, it turns a hot topic into a pretty cool entertainment--one that satisfies the viewers' need for righteous revenge while leaving them a queasy little question on the way out: Does gun diplomacy make sense only in movies? Or do Americans want it to play out in real life?