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David Cronenberg's 2005 thriller about a family man who may have a dark past as a killer.

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Shoots the Competition Dead

  • Mar 22, 2006
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The idea that a movie with graphic depictions of murder could also be deep and incredibly interesting didn't cross my mind until I saw "A History of Violence." I understand now why David Cronenberg chose to direct it; his films are nothing if not bizarre and over the top, but they also have an underlying complexity that makes them fascinating to watch. Maybe that's because he chooses stories that focus primarily on the dark recesses of the human mind and the realities they create for the individual. In this sense, "A History of Violence" may be one of his darkest films yet, not only because it's disturbingly plausible, but also because it exposes the idea that a happy family life isn't necessarily without its secrets.

This movie--based on the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke--doesn't attempt to reveal violence so much as it proves that it's always existed. And Cronenberg is certainly not afraid to show it in all its quick, brutal, and unfeeling splendor. But I'm using the word "splendor" loosely here: despite the fact that violence is quite prominent, this isn't a movie that glorifies it at all. It's simply presented to us in moments of raw imagery, such as in the opening scene when two criminals rob an out-of-the-way motel. We don't see them actually kill (except for one), but we do see the aftermath. You can tell from that scene that it wasn't a case of showing gore just for the sake of being gory. It was dark, it was unnerving, and it was real.

And it gets even more real when the setting shifts to a rural, close knit Indiana town. While the filmmakers chose not to delve too deep into the lives of the townsfolk, it's still quite apparent that this is one of those places where everyone knows everyone else's business (something we've seen before in plenty of other movies). That aspect made the film's underlying message more unsettling: however long you may have known your neighbor, friend, or spouse, you never completely know who he or she really is. This is especially true for Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), who gains sudden notoriety when he saves his diner from being robbed by two desperate criminals. We don't initially analyze how out of place his actions seem because we feel the same way the townsfolk do: we're praising him for his bravery.

But then reality starts to sink in. Tom is a mild mannered man living the typical middle class American life, complete with his wife, Edie (Maria Bello), his teenage son, Jack (Ashton Holmes), and his young daughter, Sarah (Heidi Hayes). Why would someone like that know how to kill someone, even in self-defense? This is a question posed by Carl Fogerty (Ed Harris), a mysterious and sinister figure who suddenly arrives with an equally mysterious and sinister group of men. They claim that "Tom" is actually a man named Joey Cusack who used to live in Philadelphia. Apparently, he tried to kill Fogerty many years ago. While the truth of that has yet to be revealed, there is evidence of an assault in the form of Fogerty's half blind eye, a grotesquely cloudy mass surrounded by scar tissue (supposedly the weapon of choice was barbed wire).

From here on out, it becomes a quest for the truth. Is this just a case of mistaken identity, or is Tom not everything he appears to be? It eventually becomes crucial for an explanation to come forth, as things are starting to unravel. Fogerty won't leave Tom or his family alone, continuously arriving in a new yet menacing shiny black car. What's worse is they resort to threatening Jack, who is having problems of his own in school (there were some incidents with an unjustly hostile bully). Edie starts having doubts about Tom, the man she thought she knew, the man she's loved for many years. All the secrets surrounding her husband's life have turned everyone's lives upside down, and she's clearly struggling to cope with the situation. On top of all that, Tom is eventually forced to meet a ruthless kingpin (William Hurt in his Academy Award nominated cameo) who clearly has an agenda. That scene in particular has Cronenberg effectively showing how human beings react when thrust into extraordinary situations; who would know how to handle such uncertainty? The truth is that no one really knows how to, and that remains one of the film's greatest strengths.

The film's ending is a testament to Cronenberg's ability to dissect and observe behaviors and emotions, and he does it with stunning insight. I obviously won't describe the scene, but I will say that it's an interesting unfolding of little moments. It's so interesting that you can't quite put your finger on why it works. It's not really an enlightening scene, but it is an incredibly appropriate one, and it leaves it up to the viewer's imagination as to how future events will unfold for the characters. In other words, it's not one of those endings that tie everything up in a neat little package. We've seen many endings like that, and generally they work. Still, it's refreshing to see a movie that leaves some mystery behind for us to savor, as if to say that sometimes, the answers we're looking for will not be given to us.

That's why I think David Cronenberg was the perfect director for "A History of Violence." Not only has he been willing to use unconventional storytelling methods, he's also unafraid to tackle subject matter that some may find disturbing. He's certainly never been shy about portrayals of sexuality, which in this case are heavy handed and indelicate (I'm surprised that a couple of very distinct shots made it into an R rated film). Ultimately, the notion of buried truths in the midst of a family life made this a worthwhile experience. It raises important questions and shakes the very foundation of trust. I think we occasionally need to see films like this, if not to entertain us, then to reaffirm that even those we love have strengths and weaknesses.

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March 30, 2011
one of my favorite comic adaptations to date...nice review.
March 30, 2011
Thanks for the comment. I didn't read the graphic novel, but then again, I never read graphic novels. Comic books were never really my thing.
More A History of Violence (2005 fi... reviews
review by . April 15, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
The Nature of violence is a dark and dangerous path down the road to death and sorrow....
For as long as humanity has existed we have always been violent we may have not been created that way  but somewhere down the line  we found out that violence  could save us or destroy us. It all depends on if we choose to use violence as a means of salvation or as a means of destruction in David Cronenberg's blunt yet very insightful film raises thought provoking and shocking questions about the true nature of violence and how it can affect some and change others. how sometimes …
Quick Tip by . October 09, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
A movie in two halves. A world in two halves too. Nicely delineated. Cleverly done.
review by . December 23, 2008
posted in Movie Hype
WARNING: This film contains strong brutal violence, graphic sexuality/nudity, explicit language, and brief drug use.       In the film A History of Violence, director David Cronenberg (Videodrome and Crash) examines America's fascination with violence. At the same time, both compelling and disturbing, the film shows the way that violence affects the residents of a small town in the Midwest. Utilizing his sense of irony, as well as his cinematic ability to create suspense, Cronenberg …
review by . April 29, 2009
This is one of those movies that seems to start off as a powerhouse and then peters off where the director was not sure where to take it and the movie seems to feel more like a long Sopranos episode than a feature length film.     Tom Stall runs a diner in a small Indiana town with his wife. Tom is the "nice" guy with the adoring wife that works with him and two children that everyone in the town "knows." One day there is trouble in the diner which causes Tom to get into a fight …
review by . November 08, 2008
A History Of Violence
I was anxious to watch 'A History Of Violence' because I had heard it was quite, well, violent. While there are two very exceptionally gross scenes, the violence unfortunately didn't fit it with the rest of the movie. For the most part, 'A History Of Violence' is a rather boring movie that takes a long time to get going.     Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) owns a diner in the quiet, rural town of Millbrook, IN, has a beautiful wife and two well-behaved children. When two thugs enter …
review by . March 06, 2007
posted in Movie Hype
Pros: That the dvd didn't come with something sharp to harm myself with.      Cons: That the dvd didn't come with something sharp to harm myself with.      The Bottom Line: Not the worst movie ever, but it would be on an top ten for most dull.      Plot Details: This opinion reveals everything about the movie''s plot.      Never have I been so bored by a movie where so many people die.      …
review by . December 11, 2006
posted in Movie Hype
This is one of those movies that seems to start off as a powerhouse and then peters off where the director was not sure where to take it and the movie seems to feel more like a long Sopranos episode than a feature length film.    Tom Stall runs a diner in a small Indiana town with his wife. Tom is the "nice" guy with the adoring wife that works with him and two children that everyone in the town "knows." One day there is trouble in the diner which causes Tom to get into a fight …
review by . July 21, 2006
Viggo Mortensen takes off his cowboy hat from "Hidalgo," his sword from "LOTR," and trades them in for a shotgun, a number of handguns, and a few swift punches to the throat to flesh out his role of Tom Stall in "A History Of Violence." The flick starts off with a bit of a surprise, then uses the next twenty or so minutes to build up the monotony, simplicity, and happiness of Stall's life. He has a perfect wife, Edie (Maria Bello), a good son (Ashton Holmes), and an innocent daughter (Heidi Hayes). …
review by . March 17, 2006
Too many times I've watched a movie expecting greatness and not getting that. I just knew A History Of Violence would be good but it only met some of my expectations. Although it will keep you entertained you might get mad at it lacking some realness. It may look real but trust me it doesn't look real enough and it goes on for the entire movie. For example when Tom saves his diner and the people in it he hits one of the robbers in the face with a pot of coffee and it's so obvious it's digitalized. …
review by . March 16, 2006
David Cronenberg has a style with his films that is unmistakable: he is unafraid to address the darker aspects that lie within us all. That he pushes this idea over the limits of viewable film is reflected in some of his popular films such as 'Dead Ringers', 'The Fly', 'Spider', 'eXistenZ', 'Naked Lunch' etc. Yet despite his apparent love of gore he drives home a point that should be considered. Most of the time he works with a good script. For A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE he is hampered by one of the …
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Chris Pandolfi ()
Ranked #5
Growing up a shy kid in a quiet suburb of Los Angeles, Chris Pandolfi knows all about the imagination. Pretend games were always the most fun for him, especially on the school playground; he and his … more
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About this movie


Starring Viggo Mortenson, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, William Hurt
Directed by David Cronenberg
Writer:  John Olson (screenplay)

Product Description
An average family is thrust into the spotlight after the father (Viggo Mortensen) commits a seemingly self-defense murder at his diner.

Canadian director David Cronenberg, whose impressive oeuvre includes such disparate works as THE DEAD ZONE, THE FLY, DEAD RINGERS, M. BUTTERFLY, and SPIDER, has made what might be the best film of his career with A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE. Loosely based on the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke, the movie stars Viggo Mortensen as Tom Stall, a quiet, easygoing family man who runs a diner in a small Indiana town. But when two dangerous criminals come into the restaurant prepared to wreak havoc, Stall turns hero and shoots them both. After Stall's story is blasted all over the media, Philly mobster Carl Fogaty (an excellent Ed Harris) shows up, claiming that Tom is actually former hit man Joey Cusack--and they've got some important business to finish. While Stall insists that Fogaty is mistaken, his family--his wife, Edie (Maria Bello); teenage son, Jack (Ashton Holmes); and young daughter, Sarah (Heidi Hayes)--gets dragged into the danger that constantly threatens to explode. Cronenberg, whose films ...
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Director: David Cronenberg
Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller
Release Date: September 23, 2005
MPAA Rating: R
Screen Writer: Josh Olson
DVD Release Date: March 14, 2006
Runtime: 1hr 36min
Studio: New Line Cinema
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