A History of Violence is terrific entertainment. From the opening scene, to the last scene, the film absolutely engages the viewer into this world of love, conversion, and forgiveness battling an unforgiving past of hate and violence.
The film opens with two of the most repulsive villains in film history. They are repulsive because they are uncomfortable realistic in their psychopathy and lust for violence. Later, the viewer is then manipulated in experiencing the exhilaration of violence when these two villains finally meet their match in someone who is just as comfortable with violence, but without the lust for it. It is rather disconcerting, and one can see how dangerous it is to humanity, when justice and violence become allies, since in the end something is nevertheless taken away from our spirit. The interesting thing about this film, I believe, is how the film doesn't just exploit the entertainment value of violence, but attempts to explore its impact on the humanity of good people.
Cronenberg does an excellent job in balancing these two themes. We get an exciting story that has violence, certainly, but we have an unusual character development in the anti-hero of the film, played by Viggo Mortensen, in another fine performance, and the interaction he has with his family, particularly his wife, played by Maria Bello, in what can only be described as a remarkable performance. Ms. Bello conveys a wonderful diversity of emotions, from uninhibited sensuality, sensitivity, and maternal nurturing to moral strength and courage.
Special mention has to go out to the villains in this film, for without them there would be no movie. I found Stephen McHattie and Greg Bryk absolutely outstanding as the two psychopaths that open the film. They were truly frightening men, the kind one prays you never ever meet in your lifetime. Ed Harris is wonderful as the bitter gangster who has his heart set on revenge, and William Hurt, while maybe a little too off the top in his performance, nevertheless is able to convey adequately a morally bankrupt man without a soul.
In my opinion, this is Cronenberg's best film to date, and with his fine follow-up to this film, Eastern Promises, is developing into one of the great directors of our generation.