Viggo Mortensen (in a welcome return to acting after too much time barking orders in elvish and swinging a broadsword from horseback) plays Tom Stall, a family man who runs a diner in a small Indiana town. He's not originally from the town, but he's been there long enough that everyone has long ago accepted him as one of their own. It's a normal life, Tom's young daughter has nightmares and his geeky teenage son Jack gets picked on at school, but other than that, things are good. Then the killers come into the diner right before closing, and just as they're about to execute a waitress, Tom springs into action, gunning them both down in spectacular fashion. Tom becomes a local celebrity but seems traumatized by the whole affair, wishing it could just be put behind him.
At this point, it seems that A History of Violence will become a meditation on killing and what it does to people. Although the director is David Cronenberg, and the diner scene is shot with appropriately bloody physicality (few filmmakers have as much affinity for the frailty of the human body), most of the film has so far had a quiet grace to it that calls to mind A Map of the World, another story about the after-effects of death in the heartland. Then Carl Fogaty (Ed Harris, half his face scarred by barbed wire and with one mostly dead eye) walks in with a couple of goons and things go in quite a different direction. Especially after Fogaty asks Stall's wife Edie (Maria Bello) why she thinks "Tom" is so good at killing people?
Cronenberg has a tricky task to pull off here, juggling between his cool dissection of violence and the sickening trauma it leaves behind - nobody is left unscarred, physically or spiritually, here - and the scenes of over-the-top brutality which he stages later in the film with scenery chewers like Harris (never better, in a Grand Guignol sense) and William Hurt (who should never play a mobster, ever). Some of it evokes a knowing sort of laughter and some is simply pulverizing in its visceral impact, especially the collateral damage wrought on Tom's family. The result is a surprisingly entertaining film that still leaves you with a sickening residue in the pit of your stomach.
More so than some of Cronenberg's more gothic contraptions (Crash, The Fly), A History of Violence exists for the most part in the real world, even if some of the criminal elements seem to have wandered in from a straight-to-video piece of hackwork, and it's all the more gruesome for that reality. Is there a message in the end? Not likely, but there's also much more roiling beneath the surface here - the lies people tell to live with themselves, what precisely it means to kill someone - than may be apparent on a single viewing.
A film that's hard to shake, it sticks with you like a virus.
Get ready for your history lesson, sweets.
Run time: 96 mins
In Theaters: Friday 30th September 2005
Box Office USA: $31.4M
Box Office Worldwide: $60.3M
Distributed by: New Line Cinema
Production compaines: DC Comics, New Line Cinema, BenderSpink
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 87%
Fresh: 180 Rotten: 27
IMDB: 7.5 / 10
Director: David Cronenberg
Screenwriter: Josh Olson
Starring: Viggo Mortensen as Tom Stall, Maria Bello as Edie Stall, Heidi Hayes as Sarah Stall, Ashton Holmes as Jack Stall, William Hurt as Richie Cusack, Ed Harris as Carl Fogerty, Peter MacNeill as Sheriff Sam Carney, Stephen McHattie as Leland, Greg Bryk as Billy, Kyle Schmid as Bobby, Sumela Kay as Judy Danvers, Gerry Quigley as Mick, Deborah Drakeford as Charlotte, Bill MacDonald as Frank Mulligan, Aidan Devine as Charlie Roarke
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