With his bulbous eyes, cleft chin, square-cut face and perfect triangle of a nose, Viggo Mortenson looks something like an android. He's perfectly cast in David Cronenberg's A History of Violence, a breathtaking crossfade of psychological thriller and self-conscious shoot-em-up that dares to connect various facets of the American experience with something we can all relate to: the brutal efficiency of violence.

What's that? Blood, guts and other visceral visuals of death – these don't strike you as universal levellers? Then imagine how Tom and Edie Stall must feel. Youngish and attractive, they've got a perfect, quiet little life in the kind of small Midwestern town where you can't enter a room without someone offering you a piece of pie. Edie (played by Mario Bello) is the town lawyer, and Tom (Mortenson) runs the local diner. They've got two kids, a seven-or-eight year-old angel named Sarah, and a teenage boy named Jack, gorgeous but a bit awkward, a smart, skinny kid on a baseball team full of dumb-ass townies. At the start of A History of Violence, the biggest horror in Tom and Edie's world is that their son might get beat up by a locker-room bully; luckily, he's smart (or possibly, stupid) enough to talk the guy out of it. By the end of the film, the simple act of making it through a family dinner of meatloaf and potatoes seems nearly impossible. What happens in between is essential viewing.