What To Watch: It All Comes Back in ‘A History of Violence’ (2005)

A closer look at this jarring story of a man living in the shadow of his past.

A History of Violence is a 2005 drama about a man changed by an act of violence that makes him a hero but later becomes an event riddled with consequence.

There is violence all around us of course, big and small, marked by both words and action that often have profound effect on those in its wake. We don’t always see it or understand it, but it is inherent in us as a species and the message in David Cronenberg‘s A History of Violence is that we cannot avoid it, that at the basest of levels it is often, perhaps instinctively, how we deal, how we cope, and how we handle conflicts.

The thing about violence, since well before the internet and social media and even movies and TV, is the notoriety that comes with it, how those who kill attract interest and even great fame for what they do. From wild west gunslingers to modern day serial killers, they are a source for public fascination. It doesn’t even need to be bad guys who draw headlines, as there are those who kill that do so in protection of family or others that earn recognition. However, what if that public prominence exposes something hidden that should never be seen?

A History of Violence
A History of Violence, 2005 © New Line Cinema

THE STORY: In a small Indiana town, Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) has a beautiful wife named Edie (Maria Bello) with whom they have two children: restless teenager Jack (Ashton Holmes) and anxious young Sarah (Heidi Hayes). Tom is well-liked and runs a modest diner, though when trouble comes in the form of two wanted madman desperate for cash, he takes action and in defense, manages to kill them both, with surprising ease and efficiency.

This brings him sudden and expansive fame, hailed as a hero for saving the lives of those in his restaurant. News spreads fast and the diner fills up with swooning patrons, including three intimidating men led by their badly scarred leader Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) who is convinced Tom is actually a man named Joey, a vicious mob body-man from Philadelphia. Right or not, now that’s he’s been targeted, violence returns. Deadly, murderous violence.

A History of Violence
A History of Violence, 2005 © New Line Cinema

WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Cronenberg has always had a unique vision when it comes to filmmaking, a pioneer in practical effects and horror, he has a certain rawness to his storytelling that is unlike any other in the industry. It can be harrowing and even a little uncomfortable, but that is also its appeal, a style that is at once undeniably inflated but tremendously authentic.

A History of Violence
A History of Violence, 2005 © New Line Cinema

That said, it is the performances that ring truest, with Bello very good as a tortured woman who scrambles with what feels like betrayal while understanding the levels of protection her husband provides. She is raw and tender and strong and astonishing to watch.

A History of Violence
A History of Violence, 2005 © New Line Cinema

Keep an eye and ear open as well for the larger message, for what the title means and why it is important that themes of family are present. Notice the conflicts that a father and a son have and how they mirror each other in significant ways. Watch a plate of meat at the end. History is indeed passed from generation to generation.

A GREAT MOMENT: The film takes on a primal sensibility as the story unfolds, devolving from the pastoral charms of country living to the almost limbic urgency of survival at all costs. It’s a journey of struggle, one rife with animalistic violence that manifests in bloody combat and sexual expression, and yet Cronenberg never once loses grip on the theme.

A History of Violence
A History of Violence, 2005 © New Line Cinema

That is perhaps best seen in a brief scene with William Hurt, whose relationship to all this I won’t divulge, but will make clear is a titanic piece of acting that earned him a deserving Academy Award nomination. It centers on a tight conversation between him and Tom and is defining for what Tom became and why it is worth protecting. Watch Hurt carefully for it’s one of the greatest supporting performances in cinema history.

THE TALLY: There is a remarkable opening sequence that establishes quickly the tone and expectation of the film, a short moment between two bad men who slowly, deliberately, go through the motions of an unspeakable crime, the actual act of it left entirely off camera though its presence enormous in accomplishing what it does. Cronenberg does great things here in building tension so that when we skip forward to the bucolic imagery of Tom and his country life moments after, it is already tainted by the worst colors. The film then stacks upon this leveraged heaps of hostility and stress, creating a powerful statement on what violence is, leaving enough in the final silent moments to consider interpretations. It’s what to watch.

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