I wonder if David Cronenberg was ever voted “Most Likely to Totally Creep People Out” back in high school. Certainly, as a director, the pressure-relief valve leading to the darkest, squirmiest parts of his brain seems to be stuck in the full-open position. His Dead Ringers did for trips to the gynecologist what Jaws did for swimming in the ocean.
A History of Violence both is and isn’t a departure for Cronenberg. While it does have its share of blood and human viscera on display, it’s relatively restrained (for Cronenberg) and there are no televisions turning into body parts. It’s his most mainstream movie since The Dead Zone (and it really says something about your career when your most mainstream work is a Stephen King adaptation).
Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is a quiet Indiana family man, running a small town diner and raising a family with his wife, a beautiful lawyer named Edie (Maria Bello). Their biggest worries are bad dreams for their little girl, Sarah (Heidi Hayes), and a school bully for son Jack (Ashton Holmes). That all changes when two men stick up Tom’s diner and threaten to kill his waitress.
Showing skills that you don’t learn from reading Popular Mechanics, Tom dispatches the two men. One of the key choices that Cronenberg makes is opening the film with the robbers, two minor characters who will be dead soon, leaving behind the bloody carnage of their last crime scene. By the time they get to the diner, we already know these men are capable of carrying out their threats, making Tom’s actions all the more imperative.
Unfortunately, his sudden celebrity for his heroic acts attracts the wrong kind of attention. Three men arrive from Philadelphia, lead by one Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris), an obviously dangerous man with a scarred face and one milky eye. They insist that they know Tom from Philadelphia as one Joey Cusack, which is ridiculous, of course. Right?
Fogarty and his men are not persuaded by “Joey’s” innocent act and follow Edie to the mall, then show up at their home with Tom’s son as a hostage. Their ultimatum is simple, come back to Philadelphia with them if he wants to get his son back.
I don’t know if it’s a spoiler at this point to say whether or not Tom is really Joey, but there’s not much of a story if he weren’t. Maria Bello gives a heartbreaking performance as Edie starts to realize that the father of her children is someone she doesn’t really know. Mortensen’s performance is equally convincing as the folksy diner owner and when the hardened man he used to be is forced back to the surface.
Ed Harris simply exudes menace along with a topping of knife-edged humor as Fogarty. Even before he completely reveals himself, you know Tom (or Joey) is in trouble the moment he appears. Finally, William Hurt is on hand as a Philadelphia crime boss with a connection to Joey Cusack. His performance is brief but he carves a vivid and fully original character out of his few minutes of screen time.
A History of Violence is a violent film, obviously, but the violence is not excessive or exploitive. The moments of violence are quick, brutal and ugly, as violence usually is. And it leaves us wondering: Could a good man be capable of some of things that happen here? Could such a violent man really change that much? The film exits with a closing shot that leaves that an open question.