For more than 25 years, Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg has been making movies about man's fatal attraction to the extreme -- be it electronic (''Videodrome"), scientific (''The Fly"), medical (''Dead Ringers"), transgender (''M. Butterfly"), narcotic (''Naked Lunch"), erotic (''Crash"), virtual (''eXistenZ"), or psychological (''Spider"). His latest movie, ''A History of Violence," is something of a change-up. A mild-mannered, small-town fellow is accused of having gone to grisly extremes in the past.
The film has the perverse intelligence of Cronenberg's other movies. It's not his best, but it is certainly his most accessible, least stagy work, obeying the laws of chronology and serving up characters whom we recognize as people. The movie's brilliance resides in its use of cinematic convention to shatter an illusion of social normalcy.
The Stalls, whose home is perched on a handsome plot of land in Millbrook, Ind., are an average Middle-American clan, untroubled and happy. The adults, Tom (Viggo Mortensen) and Edie (Maria Bello), are still wildly attracted to each other, and the teenage son, Jack (Ashton Holmes), gets along great with Mom and Dad despite his pot smoking and woes at school.
The family's placid state is broken after two men show up at the diner Tom owns, just as it's about to close for the night. They try to rob the place, but in a nimbly choreographed sequence, Tom turns from his neighborly self into an efficient defenseman, killing his assailants and becoming a celebrity in the process.
But the heroic glow brings out the strangest things in the Stalls. Jack, for one, doesn't merely stand up to the school bully the day after his father's incident, he bludgeons him. The sweet kid turns into a rebellious teen who would put a scare into any punk on the WB.
Soon an unwanted visitor, played with hammy malice by Ed Harris dressed in a black suit, slithers out of the woodwork and into the diner. He insinuates that our hero is actually someone named Joey. Tom is baffled. Edie is outraged. And ''A History of Violence" starts looking like a noirish action movie reframed within the contours of a Western.
This is a hard film to be more detailed about because Cronenberg has so richly booby-trapped his question of whether Tom is or was a killing machine. Needless to say, Harris's character and his impossible accusation spark a note of disharmony in the Stall household that had probably been roiling just beneath the surface all along.
''A History of Violence" has been adapted by Josh Olson from a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke, and Cronenberg seems to have attempted to duplicate the deliberate, flat dimensions of a comic book. The early first scenes of the picture often seem like a gravely serious cartoon, which, ironically, frees the movie to be funny, though without ever feeling frivolous. In fact, the film's equilibrium is poised on a line between comedy and peril, a precarious balance best demonstrated in the contrast of two sex scenes between Tom and Edie.
One happens before Harris shows up: Edie puts on a cheerleader's costume and pretends to be in her girlhood bedroom with her parents just down the hall. The other happens after. Both are funny, but the second one is charged with the animal danger that the initial tryst used as an erotic fantasy.
Not all the subversions hang together. The film feels disjointed, particularly toward the end, but afterward it blooms in the memory. The tone deepens as the story develops, in much the same way that the exuberant cheapness in the first half of David Lynch's ''Mulholland Drive" turns out to be an elaborate hoax. Cronenberg is not toying with us as Lynch was; instead, he's challenging us.
People showing up for a Viggo Mortensen action vehicle will be bummed at how commercially abnormal ''A History of Violence" is. It's an essay about human nature and the struggle against it. The film is also intensely curious about what movie violence means for the characters provoked to engage in it. Yet Cronenberg likes movies too much for this one to be an anti-entertainment deconstruction of them.
The bone crushing and shootouts supply the visceral kick they're supposed to. The sex is hot. The menace is palpable. And the performances of Mortensen, Bello, and Holmes are excellent. In other words, ''A History of Violence" is a real-life movie with disturbing dramatic implications. The impossibly happy family that sat around the breakfast table at the start of the picture is drastically altered come the supper at the end.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.