Those well schooled in the history of cinema (or who've just seen a movie or two in their time) cannot help but look at the scenes of idyllic content occupying most of the beginning of A History of Violence without knowing that something bad is coming to bust up this happy family unit. Of course, they're helped along by the fact that the film opens on a chillingly calm scene - composed almost entirely of one tracking shot - in which a pair of laconic crooks on the lam execute a number of people in a small motel with about as much emotion as they'd use to pick up their dry cleaning. While the killers and the happy family are obviously on a collision course, it's not the violent impact that matters so much as the almost more shocking aftermath, and the secrets it may uncover.
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.
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