In the opening scene of A History of Violence, the Stall family is awakened by the screams of young Sarah. Tom (Viggo Mortensen) reaches her first, and as he scoops her up, she explains that she saw a monster. Tom pets her hair and tells her it was just a dream. Her brother pops in to make sure she’s okay, followed by their mother, Edie (Maria Bello). They are the portrait of the all-American family. “There are no monsters,” says Tom comfortingly. You’d be tempted to believe him, but who needs monsters when people can be so scary?
Tom is the owner of a small diner, but his idyllic life is turned on its ear when two men attempt an armed robbery. Thinking quickly, Tom takes out the bad guys in a series of moves that could not have been more perfect if they’d been choreographed. Though touted as a hero by the media, all the attention yields some unwanted results. It’s not long before Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) shows up at the diner with a scarred up face and a milky eye. He seems to think Tom’s real name is Joey Cusack, and that Tom ruined his eye with barbed wire. Yikes!
The arrival of Mr. Fogarty and his sinister black car raises several questions about Tom. Is he in the witness protection program? Was he mixed up in some sort of trouble? And as Fogarty himself asks, “How come he’s so good at killin’ people?” Tom denies it all until the truth is simply too obvious to avoid.
We wouldn’t have much of a movie if Tom didn’t have a history of violence, which, of course, creates a great deal of turmoil within his family. Does the lie he told change the truth they know? Can he still be the Tom Stall they love if he really was Joey Cusack? It becomes clear that Tom must confront his past before he will have a chance at a future. Part of that past comes in the form of his brother, played by William Hurt. What’s all this performance-of-a-lifetime buzz? Are they kidding? William Hurt made my skin crawl in this movie, and not in the good way that Ed Harris did. William is so inexplicably creepy that I didn’t even want to watch when he was onscreen!
As a whole, the film is exceptionally well acted. The only poor performance is given by Heidi Hayes, who plays Sarah. Aside from having no personality or spunk whatsoever, she isn’t given anything normal to do. As her mother confronts Fogarty in the mall, Sarah does not stare at his disfigured face, she’s not alarmed by this strange man who is upsetting her mom—she climbs on one of those kiddie car rides! What kind of kid is that?! Her pivotal scene requires her only to set a place at the table for her dad, and she even manages to bungle that by facing his knife in the wrong direction! Sheesh!
If you’re worried about seeing A History of Violence because you’ve heard that it’s creepy, kinky, and directed by David Cronenberg, fear not. He doesn’t skimp on the graphic details, but I didn’t find the movie to be emotionally damaging. Sometimes when you’re crying on your husband’s shoulder, your nose runs on his collar, and sometimes when you pull away, the snot stretches unattractively. When you blow out a guy’s brains, the brains land on your shirt, and the blood spatters your face. It’s all here in A History of Violence, yet it’s a surprisingly redemptive film more along the lines of The Dead Zone than Cronenberg’s weirder fare. You can trust me when I say this, because his 80s television show, Friday the 13th, instilled in me a phobia of antiques that haunts me to this day. The only thing to fear after seeing A History of Violence, is, you know, ever trusting another person again. Small potatoes next to the antique thing, don’t you think?