This review was originally published at Christianity Today.

The Godfather saga. Apocalypse Now. Full Metal Jacket. Unforgiven. The Passion of the Christ. They’ve all been rightfully celebrated as artful, original explorations of dark subject matter, unflinching in their portrayals of human evil. Each film leaves viewers exhausted, bruised by depictions of gross violence. This is not mere “entertainment.” Many viewers would be wise to avoid them altogether. Not all sensibilities are equipped for such troubling explorations.

A History of Violence belongs on that list. If you buy a ticket for this nightmarish vision, proceed with extreme caution … and vigilant conscience. It is a supremely executed and revelatory work on the nature and consequences of physical, emotional, psychological, and sexual violence. But while it is cleverly crafted and meaningful, it is not pleasant or uplifting. Just as it takes a strong, discerning doctor to cut into a human body and search for the disease amidst the gore, so it takes a certain kind of moviegoer to glean insight from David Cronenberg’s discomforting exploration of human misbehavior.

The Fly, Dead Ringers, Spider—Cronenberg’s is a history of violent stories. WithViolence, he’ll likely earn an Oscar nomination for direction. John Olson’s screenplay is cleverly adapted from a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke. Peter Suschitzky’s cinematography meticulously conceals enough information to keep us on edge. The supporting cast—Maria Bello, Ashton Holmes, Ed Harris, and above all the show-stealing William Hurt—delivers complex performances. But the movie belongs to Viggo Mortensen, who gives his strongest, most intuitive performance. It’ll take fifteen minutes for you to forget all about his role as Aragorn in the Lord of the Ringstrilogy.

Tom Stall (Mortensen), owner of a diner in Millbrook, Indiana, is a faithful husband and a caring father. He enjoys a quiet, peaceful existence. That all changes when violent thugs threaten his employees and customers; his response—which involves a gun and a mean pot of coffee—catapults him into the headlines as “an American hero.” From the moment he achieves hero status, Tom begins to observe undesirable consequences of his courageous feat.
First, there’s the immediate damage done to the victims. One man watches his life bleed away from the hole where his jaw used to be.

Second, Tom’s relationship with his teen-age son Jack (Holmes) changes. What kind of example has Tom set? Viewers cheer when Jack uses his wits to escape from locker-room bullies. Should we hope that he’ll follow in Tom’s footsteps and resort to violent retaliation next time?

Third, Tom’s intimacy with his wife Edie (Bello) suffers. Early in the film, their date-night sex involves some playful bedroom role-playing, as Edie dons her old high school cheerleader uniform and whispers that their parents are next door. Their interest in imagining danger and indiscretion only scratches the surface of the baser appetites and dark secrets they’re harboring. As the two encounter each others’ darker selves and become strangers, their sex life deteriorates into contentious, bruising power plays. (Again, viewer beware: These are adults-only sex scenes, but they’re not pornographic—they’re devoid of glamour and gratuitous nudity, filmed clinically to communicate essential information about a changing relationship.)

Finally, what are the Stalls to do about the sinister strangers who pay a visit to America’s hero? Irish gangster Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) and his thugs claim they recognize Tom. Is his real name “Joey Cusack?” Is he concealing a violent past, where scores remain unsettled?

Soon, Tom and Edie are defending against these accusations with more violence. There’s no “panic room” in this house. And whether or not Tom is “Joey,” he and his family are about to learn disturbing things about each other …

It would take a book-length review to explore all of the film’s provocative implications. Here are a few lenses through which to examine this nightmare.

The film’s title, on a literal level, could refer to Tom’s personal history … that is, if Fogarty and Company’s accusations prove true. But on a thematic level, the focus on star-spangled nostalgia makes parallels to American history obvious. Stall’s Diner looks like an Americana museum, just down the road from a post office and a general store, protected by a likeable old sheriff, and offering slices of home-baked pie. We end up, of course, in “the City of Brotherly Love,” knee-deep in the surrealism of Blue Velvet or Chinatown, both of which dig up nasty tumors beneath the skin of American idealism.

Predictably, some are hastily characterizing Violence as a slam on the Bush administration. But Cronenberg, a Canadian, is quick to deflect such interpretations. He told The Village Voice, “People wanted to take it as a critique of America … [but] let’s not just jump on the U.S. because there’s no country in the world that doesn’t have a history of violence.”

No, Cronenberg isn’t preaching sermons here. Instead, he’s raising questions in the mode of Flannery O’Connor, whose harsh revelations shocked readers. “Show, don’t tell”—that’s art’s first rule. Hitchcock would have applauded Cronenberg’s subversive approach, as he sets up familiar images to make audiences comfortable, and then exposes our flawed assumptions by defying our expectations.

For example, when Tom defends the diner, he seems a towering action hero. The audience cheers! But then the camera reveals what we don’t expect to see—fleeting images of carnage—and the rejoicing stops. Big screen heroism seems more complicated, less glorious, when we see the damage done. If more films told the whole story, involving us not just in the bold act but in the consequences and cleanup, perhaps audiences would be slower to embrace violence as “entertainment.”

Cronenberg also raises timely questions about the precedent set by retaliation, about what happens to the heart and soul of the person delivering such violence, and about the cost of freedom. How often do we contemplate the blood being shed so families can enjoy a peaceful dinnertime? Is the reward worth the price?

Wait, there’s more: Tom’s dilemma examines the consequences of extreme historical makeovers. This story shows that the sins of individuals (and by implication, nations) pretending to be blameless will find them out. (For years, Hollywood portrayed Indians as evil and disposable obstacles for righteous cowboys. We’re still recovering from the damage done by such gross whitewashing.)

Hopefully, A History of Violence will serve to encourage a sobering sense of responsibility, a more truthful perspective on our identities (individual and national), and a stronger tendency toward restraint in those who might find violence appealing, practical, or—God forbid—”sexy.” After all, we have a Savior who valued restraint, and who reprimanded the Apostle Peter’s violent retaliation, even when there was a reasonable cause for lashing out.

The Stalls’ story shows that human beings cannot rely solely upon guns and guts for redemption. The crosses around Tom’s and Edie’s necks point to the source of redemption, but they fail to notice. (Tom, like his enemies, uses Jesus’ name only as an expletive.) Only Tom’s little daughter Sarah (Heidi Hayes), with her wide-eyed innocence, seems capable of grace under such circumstances, and it’s unclear whether Cronenberg takes her seriously after the corruption he’s exposed.

Sadly, Cronenberg’s crosses are intended only as irony. How could “Christian” people engage in such behavior? He told The New York Times, “I’m an atheist, and so I have a philosophical problem with … God and heaven and hell and all that stuff. I’m not just a nonbeliever, I’m an antibeliever—I think it’s a destructive philosophy.” It’s also ironic, then, that his film exposes humanity’s helplessness and need for salvation from beyond.

But that’s the power of art … it often reveals more than the artist ever intended.