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Filmmaker David Cronenberg puts his distinctive stamp on a graphic novel

In Adaptation, screenwriting genius Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) struggles with finding a filmic pathway into Susan Orlean’s seemingly impenetrable novel, The Orchid Thief. His journey begins with the work itself but winds its way into his subconscious before emerging in a weird celebration and cunning commentary on Hollywood genre tropes and screenwriting schools of thought.

To avoid the pitfalls Kaufman experiences, studios and a number of creative types have discovered the graphic novel and initiated a campaign to rewrite the comic frames within a vividly substantial, live-action context. The novelizations offer enough of a literary basis to satisfy the need for credibility, plus a marketing foundation with the genre’s loyal fan base. And the graphic framework provides a visual blueprint for writers and directors.

This marriage of convenience has produced Robert Rodriguez’s highly stylized conceptualization of Frank Miller’s Sin City, which succeeded in transposing the hand-drawn frames onto the screen with movement and character investment adding the third dimension. In Road to Perdition, Sam Mendes went for less pulp and more somber set pieces to re-create the period with stately sensibilities.

Enter David Cronenberg, a director with a filmography that features macabre explorations into the history of the human body under assault from inner, sometimes uniquely existential forces (The Brood, Videodrome and The Fly).

He has also shown interest in tackling the marriage of his own artistic bent with stories from such diverse source materials as Stephen King (The Dead Zone), William Burroughs (Naked Lunch) and J.G. Ballard (Crash). Naked Lunch, in particular, was seen as a difficult, if not impossible, book to convert into a coherent visual text.

Somehow, this might lower the stakes for Cronenberg’s latest effort, A History of Violence, an adaptation of John Wagner and Vince Locke’s graphic novel. The project rests in the hands of a director who has little need for a road map and a satchel of his own idiosyncratic themes to explore.

Cronenberg and writer Josh Olson rewrite History, subtly examining the effects of violence on the most basic human collective, the family, without aspiring to highly staged metaphoric compositions or special effects intent on transforming the visual framework. There is surprising intimacy in Olson’s reconfigured dynamics.

Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is a small-town owner of a local diner. He’s also the husband of Edie (Maria Bello), a sexy mother and lawyer, and the father of young Sarah (Heidi Hayes), who dreams of monsters, and the teenaged Jack (Ashton Holmes), who must contend with bullies testing his emerging manhood on the field and in the hallways of the high school. Olson’s script wisely develops each of the Stalls, creating characters who become more complex in the face of the approaching onslaught that will threaten to tear them apart.

Tom thwarts an attack by a pair of homicidal fiends at the diner one evening, thanks to a reflexive display of swift and deadly force, then finds himself in the harsh spotlight of a media ready to proclaim him a hero.

Before long, Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) and a couple of his cronies arrive with evidence that Tom might not be the simple small-towner he says he is. In fact, Tom is really Joey Cusack, a Philadelphia mob soldier who has been living underground. Carl seeks a bit of biblical justice — an eye for an eye — and before long Tom and the Stalls react in startling ways to defend the family structure and sense of stability they have created.

Young Jack’s explosive confrontation with school bullies is just one of the significant edits to the story from Wagner and Locke’s graphic novel. The book spends far more time on the Cusack back-story in New York City and the seeds of violence sown there. The literary Tom journeys to the City to settle scores like a revisionist avenger from a Clint Eastwood film.

Here, the road leads to Philly and a reunion with a long lost brother, Richie Cusack (William Hurt), who has taken over the crime family and must set things right in order to restore a long simmering feud. The resulting violent conclusion comes down to a personal confrontation between two brothers. One family must be destroyed for another to live on.

Cronenberg has a history of fascination with internal conflicts, but here he exhibits a heretofore unrealized ability to stage succinct, visceral action scenes. The initial attack in the diner is swift, brutal and hyper-realistic, even allowing for a moment to study the gory details of a gunshot victim. The image lingers to feed the audiences’ insatiable desire for such graphic displays.

Overall, the otherwise stark framing calls for actors who work on a smaller scale in intimate exchanges. Mortensen shifts effortlessly between the action and the interpersonal moments without drawing undue attention to the elements necessary to building a character who has literally rebuilt a new history.

Bello has the charm, intelligence and none of the star qualities that would distract viewers from believing her as a sensual Midwestern woman. Harris and Hurt immerse themselves in the hard-boiled aesthetic without resorting to scenery chewing. While their characters never achieve three full dimensions, they inhabit the limited emotional terrain with predatory glee.

In his introduction to the book, Wagner expressed his fascination with “ordinary people caught up in extraordinary situations.” That has been the genesis for all of his work.

He and Locke have found in Olson and Cronenberg a pair of collaborators willing to extend that notion one step forward — but it is a step that doesn’t remove any of the primal terror inherent in the circumstances. In fact, it delineates the ugly truths of this unforgettable film. (tt clinkscales) Grade: A