With the possible exception of The Dead Zone, David Cronenberg has never made a straight genre exercise. That's not to say that he's completely rejected the idea of working within established storytelling categories. During the course of his 30-year career, the Canadian writer-director has tried his hand at everything from horror (Scanners) to romance (M. Butterfly) to science fiction (eXistenZ). Still, while many of his films can be classified in a specific genre, they are very rarely of that genre. That's largely because Cronenberg has never shown much interest in following narrative conventions, which are what genre pictures are built on. He's fascinated by the elements that go into cinematic storytelling-characterizations, themes, even special effects-rather than the story itself. As a result, there's always a certain detachment present in his films; one often gets the sense that the director is deconstructing his own movie as he's making it.

That feeling is present once again in Cronenberg's latest film, A History of Violence. Ever since it debuted at Cannes in May, the acclaimed thriller has been touted as his most mainstream effort since The Fly. That's true to a certain extent; there are no auto-accident fetishists or freakish Mugwumps present to scare general audiences away. But only the most inattentive viewers will consider this to be a routine thriller. From the opening frames, there's something noticeably askew about the movie, which is only appropriate since it's about a man who isn't what he seems.

Based on a 1997 graphic novel (which technically makes this Cronenberg's first comic-book movie), A History of Violence introduces us to the Stalls, a picture-perfect family living happily in small-town America. Patriarch Tom (Viggo Mortensen) runs a small diner and his gorgeous wife Edie (Maria Bello) is a successful lawyer. Although they've been married for well over a decade, the couple still can't keep their hands off each other; when their two kids are out of the house one evening, they seize the opportunity to make some tender-and surprisingly frank-whoopee. But their lives change overnight when Tom confronts and kills two criminals who are attempting to rob his diner. His heroism briefly makes him a national celebrity, much to his dismay. Not long after his image pops up on evening-news broadcasts around the country, a mysterious man in black (chillingly played by Ed Harris) turns up in town calling Tom by another name-Joey. Apparently, this "Joey" was an ace killer who disappeared some years ago after robbing a prominent member of the Mafia. Tom swears he has the wrong man, but the stranger won't leave him alone. Even worse, he begins to make veiled threats against Edie and the kids. Soon, Edie herself starts to wonder if she really knows the man she's married to.

In its original comic-book form, A History of Violence was a slice of pure pulp fiction with a perversely gruesome finale that could have come straight out of almost any Cronenberg film. For the movie version, screenwriter Josh Olson retains the basic premise, but the second and third acts have been completely rewritten. Instead of a crime story, this is much more of a family drama, one that deals seriously with the notion of dual identities. In what is certainly one of his best performances to date, Mortensen provides a haunting depiction of how two separate individuals can inhabit the same body. Bello matches his intensity scene for scene; it's painful to watch Edie and Tom's rock-solid relationship fracture as her doubts about him continue to grow. Midway through the film, the pair have another sexual encounter, only this one is fueled by fear and uncertainty rather than love. Cronenberg specializes in scenes like this, which mingle intimacy with violence in startling and often uncomfortable ways. In fact, the emotional trauma wrought by Tom's past is more affecting than any of the blunt physical violence we see throughout the film.

Despite his repeated jokes about A History of Violence being his sellout picture, Cronenberg's imprint is all over the movie. As usual, he rarely makes the obvious choice in any scene, holding certain beats longer than expected and mining seemingly serious moments for laughs and vice versa. He also makes interesting use of Howard Shore's lush score; at times, the music seems to comment on a scene rather than complement it. It's all part of Cronenberg's approach to filmmaking, which is to get the audience thinking about the movie as they experience it. One could make the case that A History of Violence is actually a critique of the thriller genre, with Cronenberg taking on the role of professor as well as director. The movie's self-awareness is undoubtedly one of the reasons many critics are so taken with it. Whether the public will respond the same way is more difficult to gauge. Cronenberg gives them everything they might want in a thriller-sex, violence and cool plot twists-but he doesn't attempt to leave them satisfied. If anything, you walk out of the theatre feeling uneasy about the violent thrillers you may have enjoyed in the past. In Cronenberg's hands, it becomes a little harder to laugh it off and say, "It's only a movie."

-Ethan Alter