This is a gem of a movie. It is one of those rare treats that you can enjoy on multiple levels - as a straight forward thriller, or as it is really intended, as something much more thought provoking.
We start the movie with Tom Stall (Viggo Mortnesen) and his wife played by Mario Bello exhibit all the characteristics of a happy, safe, marriage. Passionate, intimate, good kids etc... Then their world is disrupted, when two bad guys come into the diner where he works. They set out to do nasty things, and Stall is propelled into a brief but highly effective eruption of violence. He is feted as a hero, but we begin to see the changes in his relationship with his son in particular as a result. As the town comes back to normal however, the ever brilliant Ed Harris comes into town. He is convinced Tom Stall is actually someone else altogether, an explanation that fits with the violence we have seen. To say more about the plot would be to deprive you of seeing how things unfold, so I will leave it at that.
It is in the subtexts that the movie excels - not telling us what we should think, but questioning our own reactions. Is his son right for using more violent means with bullies? Was a little violence necessary to balance his pacifist ways? Is the couples `violent' sex more real than the passion we see near the beginning of the movie?
As stated by others, it is after the movie ends and you start talking about the movie.. and you WILL start talking about the movie, that you will realise how effective it actually was. The performances are uniformly excellent - Mario Bello brings real credibility to a wife dealing with the changes in her husband, and Ashton Holmes as Tom Stall's son is brilliant. William Hurt is almost unrecognisable in the role of a mob boss teetering on the edge of sanity. And last but not least, Howard Shore gives a muted and perfectly sorrowful score, completely at odds with the violence in a way that helps the movie immensely.
There is violence, and there is sex, but all tightly controlled and more tense than graphic, and all carefully crafted to service the story. The ending will disappoint you if you tackle this as a mere action movie.. but if you want a real kick off into the whole subject of the influence and effects of violence, then this is a perfect place to start.