Published on February 24th, 2014 | by Clint Davis
A History of Violence 
Summary: One of the slowest burns you'll ever see. Cronenberg gives us a tight, heavy character study with one hell of a challenging protagonist.
R | 96 min.
Director: David Cronenberg
Screenplay: Josh Olson (based on the graphic novel by John Wagner & Vince Locke)
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris
Distribution: New Line Cinemas
Box Office: $60,740,827 (#90 of 2005)
“In this family, we do not solve problems by hitting people.”
So says small-town Indiana coffee shop owner Tom Stall to his angsty son Jack after the boy has just beat the hell out of an annoying bully at school. Meanwhile, just a few nights earlier, Tom brutally killed a pair of thugs who tried to rob his restaurant. If it sounds like a father-son scene lifted out of The Sopranos, that’s because it’s pretty damn close.
Tom, the central character in A History of Violence, is walking a fine line between his violent urges and his mostly normal home life. He’s also one of the more challenging protagonists you’ll find in a big studio picture. But the major difference between Tom and Tony Soprano is that while Tony is leading a double life, Tom has firmly locked his demons away. However, out of no fault of his own, they’ve tracked him down again. Director David Cronenberg’s first of three consecutive pairings with Viggo Mortensen is a study on duality and how difficult it is to shake one’s past.
Tom (Mortensen) lives a quiet life with his wife Edie (Maria Bello) and two children in a quiet country home. He’s a well-liked member of the community who mostly keeps to himself, barely speaking louder than a whisper. But when he foils the blood-thirsty robbers out of sheer instinct, he becomes a local celebrity, with his face plastered on the evening news.
Soon after, a stranger named Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) — who dresses like death and seems to be as ugly on the inside as out — finds his way to town and begins calling Tom by a name he’s long tried to forget: Joey Cusack. Eventually, Tom has to face his past head-on, crossing paths with his estranged brother Richie (William Hurt) and a group of small-time Philadelphia thugs.
A History of Violence is a slow-moving beast but is well paced at only 96 minutes. There are a few excruciating scenes where we follow teenage Jack (Ashton Holmes) in his misadventures with high school bully Bobby (Kyle Schmid), who loves to use the word “faggot” and makes a strong case to be the most annoying character in movie history. For as great as Cronenberg is at casting incredible talent in his lead roles, he seems to be equally gifted at finding dreadful actors to fill important roles. These few scenes between Jack and his tormenter bring the film to a screeching halt … but thankfully we’ve got Mortensen, Bello and Harris to lean on.
Speaking of the film’s performances, it’s William Hurt that swoops in and completely commands the screen in only 8 minutes on screen. It’s one of the shortest performances ever to be nominated for an Oscar, and I don’t think anyone would have been upset if he’d won. As Tom’s brother Richie, Hurt exudes charisma, doom and a completely warped sense of family values — all the while spitting some very funny lines.
Cronenberg says in the film’s commentary that the climactic third act of A History of Violence hinged completely on whoever would play Richie, and Hurt chewed up every second of screen time he was given. By the time the ending comes around, you pretty much know what’s going to happen but it’s Hurt’s turn that keeps the audience on edge.
Mortensen’s performance, on the other hand, is so subtle you almost forget about him even when he’s onscreen, which works for the character. Joey has been living as Tom Stall for nearly 20 years and has done everything in his power to put his brutal ways behind him. Even when he does open an entire case of whoop-ass on some thugs, he seems to do it with a twinge of regret, especially when his son and wife see him drive a guys nose bone into his brain with a series of pointed punches. He’s a challenging character to like though because we start with a squeaky-clean image of him but as more of his personal history is revealed, we find out this is not a guy we would typically root for. Yet Mortensen makes us stick with him.
If you’re familiar with Cronenberg’s past work, you’ll not be surprised to see the violence in A History of Violence is in-your-face and sensationalized. Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, who’s shot every Cronenberg film since 1988’s near-flawless Dead Ringers, gets the camera right into the gore, forcing you to look at some hideous sights. I wouldn’t call the movie violent though, as it’s all used to further our knowledge into Stall’s former life.
Violence also pops up in one of the film’s most infamous scenes, as Edie and Tom have sex on the stairway of their home after he tells her about what he’s been running from. She asks him if switching between Tom and Joey is like “flipping a switch,” and in this scene she clearly sees it can be as he pins her down and secures a hand around her throat; but Edie is far from a victim, letting us know she’s in control by kicking Tom and strutting away after it’s over, leaving him like a pile of laundry on the hardwood steps.
This movie is certainly one of Cronenberg’s best and one of the ultimate slow burns you’ll catch on DVD (or VHS, as it was reportedly the final major releases on the format). Jack’s character and storyline comes dangerously close to throwing things off-track but I applaud Josh Olson’s script for making everything add up to serve the ultimate goal of the film. If you’re in for something heavy but not a marathon watch, give this one a spin.