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.

Tom and Edie's world changes one night when two strangers walk into Tom's diner just before he's about to close.  One pulls a gun and Tom reacts quickly, smashing his face with a coffee pot, grabbing the piece in the ensuing struggle and quickly blowing the bad guys away. Stabbed in the foot in the course of the altercation, Tom emerges from the hospital to national headlines proclaiming him an "American Hero"; this humble family man insists that he didn't do anything you wouldn't have done, that he just reacted instinctively, in the moment, that he did just did exactly what he had to do under the circumstances.

But did he? Cronenberg's gunplay eschews the multi-angle fetishism that we're used to seeing in action films, so its real time plays itself out in what feels like warp speed. It's over before its even begun, the threat quickly, efficiently resolved in two bleeding corpses. No one questions Tom's surprising proficiency with a weapon until a new batch of strangers comes to town. Led by a slickly spooky, glass-eyed Ed Harris, these new goons cruise through town in an ominous black Cadillac, insisting that Tom isn't who he says he is. Harris corners Edie at the mall and wonders why she hasn't wondered why her husband "is so good at killing". It is, it would appear, a valid question. Mortenson expertly toggles between blank-eyed ingénue and single-minded determined liar; Tom knows the answer, but he’ll not give it up until he’s got nothing left to lose.

In Josh Olson’s tightly crafted script, based on a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke, that first act of violence becomes a Macbethian spot the Stall family can’t get rid off, and by the time Tom and Edie let a marital fistfight flow into sudden, brutal, up-against-a-staircase sex, one wonders if they even want to. The shooting reveals a compelling truth, and it’s not just that Tom may not be Tom. Slowly the Stalls realize that violence – and its attendant aggression and adrenaline, the sweat and the bruises and most of all the blood – is simply sexy. In itself, it's more desireable than any of the aspects of their storybook lifestyle in progress. Like anything that calls the brain to deal with the nexus of sex and power, its lure is not easily refused.

The violence of A History of Violence is precise and necessary; it is, in fact, a kind of precision slapstick. By the time William Hurt is cameoing as a neurotic mob boss, we come to understand that Cronenberg has invented a new kind of satire. If it wasn’t such an urgent take-down of the American split between so-called family values and full-on anarchic destruction, it might be a comedy. And it cannot be said that a single drop of blood spilled here is gratuitous. Most of it has a short range of splatter, coming as it does from near-identical wounds to the face, inflicted at the level of the highest professionalism. But it’s the final killing that makes the most indelible impression: a single, quarter sized wound, the corpse at rest in a tranquil pool of opaque maroon. For the first time in his career, Cronenberg has figured out exactly when and where to reign it in.

The plot, though ultimately a structure on which to hang more oblique poetics on spectacle and pain, as well as a few brutally good jokes, is dependent enough on twists and surprises so that talking about the film’s best moments is tough. Suffice it to say that both Tom and his son eventually face their respective bullies, each with the other in mind. Tom scolds Jack after an incident at school:”In this family, we do not solve problems by hitting people.” Jack responds, “No, in this family, we shoot them!” A switch is flicked, and Tom responds with a cold, hard slap. Within minutes, though, Jack has saved his father’s life, and Tom rises from the ground, his head taking up the exact center of a frame back-dropped in deep farmland green, his face splattered in blood. He tilts his head slightly and just stares at his son, who’s just blown adversarial guts all over his head and sweatshirt. I don’t know if I’ve been as afraid of the look in an actor’s eyes in years. If you need one reason to see this film, let it be that shot - I’m fairly sure it’s the image of the year.