Written by: Josh Olson
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, William Hurt, Ed Harris, Ashton Holmes
From backward skirmishes to all-out war, “violence is not the answer” has been stated endlessly by advocates for peace. However, it seemingly never ceases to be an option selected by those with the power to choose. This decision to partake or not with this act ails the protagonist of A History of Violence as it shows not everything on the surface appears to be reality within this small town.
Owning a diner in small-town Indiana, Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) lives the American dream with a loving wife and kids. After defending himself and other patrons from an attempted robbery, he draws up attention from mysterious men from Philadelphia. As they make their way to Indiana, these men keep referring to Tom as Joey Cusack from a past Tom cannot recall.
The manner in which things go from calm to violent in this feature certainly comes with plenty of intentionality and it serves as part of the thesis of the narrative. The way things can appear to be normal and straightforward until a large wrench gets thrown in the middle. One’s instant reaction to the change says plenty and the quick outburst and proficiency Tom displays in the diner signifies there may be more under the surface than what he may be initially displayed to the audience. Leading up to this particular incident, everything felt completely normal in his life, but when the mysterious men arrive in Indiana, they insist Tom is actually Joey, which allows for three different avenues for the truth. Either Tom completely forgot about a bloody past perhaps through amnesia, these mysterious men are gravely mistaken in their assertion, or this man has done a good job selling this new life. A History of Violence answers this particular question but not without plenty of damage in-between.
For such a compelling setup, this narrative plays out in a fairly straightforward manner almost to the point where the ending felt abrupt with an expectation of there being more to the story. The lean and mean nature of this film allows us to get in and out with what gets presented and when looking at it as a whole, a complete and compelling portrait has been drawn together. There lies the beauty of this film and how we delve into the past of Tom and if he truly represents what we see in the first act of the feature. The unraveling of it all calls for some intrigue and it certainly gets dicey on more than one occasion.
Matching the sensitivity of Tom’s life and supposed violence of his past makes for quite the character to investigate. The man he presents himself to be pretty much sums up the American dream and he certainly teaches a non-violent approach to his children as seen with his oldest refusing to fight a bully trying to physically engage. It leads to a verbal takedown for the ages pretty much summing up the immaturity of fighting. However, this runs opposed to what these men in Philadelphia claim even to the point of showing some physical evidence of what Tom supposedly did back in the day. Viggo Mortensen does so well in his portrayal of this character because he owns up to the softness of his character and really leaves the audience in suspense of who’s right about Tom’s past. A level of confusion and concern sits upon his face, even with more evidence proving we may not be dealing with the person he claims to be. The duality of this character makes him someone worth following in this journey, which evidently will probably not end with a goodbye hug between him and the men from Philadelphia.
As a filmmaker, David Cronenberg has never shied away from showing extreme violence and combining it with body horror. In this feature, he definitely has some fun with the level of damage Tom can instill, almost without thinking of it. Some sequences will cause you to look away due to what gets displayed on screen but what else could you expect when viewing a Cronenberg film with the word “violence” in the title. Even with this in mind, he manages to show restraint in this film especially compared to his other works where it can be relentless. Most of the narrative stayed with the human aspect of Tom rather than the damage he could inflict upon others with his fist or a weapon. This aids the film from being filled with senseless violence and actually gives it some decent meaning.
A History of Violence only further proves Viggo Mortensen and David Cronenberg make for quite the pairing as also seen in Eastern Promises and A Dangerous Method. This film wastes no time in telling its story nor does it aimlessly wander as it economically builds the suspense and intrigue of this situation and revs it up completely. The bits of violence in the film have their effect because of the sporadic but harsh frequency in which it arrives. A thrilling take expertly put together with a resounding message overall.