Though best known for early-career body horror extravaganzas like “Dead Ringers” and “The Fly” or his late period adaptations of unadaptable books (“Naked Lunch,” “Crash” and “Cosmopolis”), there was a brief spell back in the mid-2000s when David Cronenberg made gangster movies. This weekend, Coolidge After Midnite is screening 35mm prints of the director’s “A History of Violence” and “Eastern Promises,” a Dubya-era diptych of underworld duality in which the big-brained Canadian flirted with making mainstream thrillers. These are brisk B-pictures with a bit more on their minds, engineered to capitalize on the ambiguous magnetism of newly minted leading man Viggo Mortensen.
The title of Friday night’s “A History of Violence” can be read two ways, as can most scenes in this darkly comic fable, which stars Mortensen as a folksy, small town diner owner who makes national news after halting an attempted holdup in spectacularly grisly fashion. Pretty soon some well-dressed men come snooping around — including a one-eyed Ed Harris at his most insinuatingly sinister — claiming our cornpone protagonist looks an awful lot like a hitman who disappeared from Philadelphia 20 years ago.
Mortensen has just as many secrets in Saturday’s “Eastern Promises,” playing a fiercely loyal and impressively tattooed chauffeur to a family with more creepy Russian mob connections than our current Presidential cabinet. A rare crime movie without gunplay, it boasts one of that decade’s most notorious suspense sequences, in which our hero is ambushed in a steam room by a couple of blade-wielding baddies. (Nothing more nerve-wracking than a knife-fight when you’re naked.)
Both pictures hinge upon their star’s rare ability to engage an audience while playing cards close to his vest, and the films are fraught with doppelgangers and doubles — characters and scenes designed to serve as distorted mirror images of one another.
“History” is bookended by two sharply contrasting sex scenes. The first finds Mortensen and wife Maria Bello tenderly indulging nostalgic teenage dreams, the missus even donning her old high school cheerleader’s outfit. The second is a bruising bout on their hardwood stairs, a vehement bit of rutting tinged with revulsion and lust. Here and throughout both films Cronenberg depicts violence as a virus, infecting the pastoral settings and perverting formerly idyllic interactions.
He ends “History” with a parody of a Norman Rockwell painting — a “What did you do in the war, Daddy?” riff implying we all have Sunday dinners with murderers.
“A History of Violence” and “Eastern Promises” play Apr. 7 and Apr. 8 at 11:59 p.m., respectively, at Coolidge Corner Theatre, 290 Harvard St., Brookline. Visit the site for tickets and showtimes.
Follow Sean Burns on Twitter @seanmburns