A History of Violence (2005) / Drama-Thriller

MPAA Rated: R for strong violence, sex, nudity, drug use, and language
Running Time: 96 min.

Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ashton Holmes, Ed Harris, William Hurt, Peter MacNeill, Stephen McHattie, Michelle McCree
Director: David Cronenberg
Screenplay: Josh Olson (based on the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke)
Review published October 7, 2005

Viggo Mortensen (Hidalgo, Return of the King) plays small town Indiana diner owner Tom Stall -- a quiet man in a quiet town, living the American dream of a house, an adoring wife, and two good kids.  The town becomes not-so-quiet when some killers roll through needing cash, and Tom's diner is the perfect spot for a heist and a bloodbath.  The criminals get more than they bargained for when Tom makes a stand and takes them out, becoming a local hero.  Tom doesn't want the spotlight, but the media keeps coming around, and so do some new visitors, in the form of a trio of Philadelphia gangsters that insist that Tom is actually a former gangster named Joey.  Tom maintains that they are mistaken, but they are sure of it and won't go away.  Is it mistaken identity or is the past coming back to haunt him?

One of David Cronenberg's (Spider, Crash) most straightforward and mainstream movies, and also one of his best.  A History of Violence is a contemplative drama, a gritty thriller, and a complex portrayal of family trust all rolled into one exciting and thought-provoking package.  It's based on the graphic novel of the same name by John Wagner and Vince Locke, but the delivery and style is all Cronenberg, who deftly shifts gears a number of times, letting each quiet moment linger just enough to lull us, shocking us when the softer moments erupts into confusion, violence, and ugliness. 

A strong central performance by Viggo Mortensen is a true asset, as he exhibits the nature of a good family man perfectly, while also very believable as a man that could be dangerous if provoked sufficiently.  Equally up to the task is Maria Bello (Assault on Precinct 13, Secret Window) as his faithful wife, exhibiting strength, support and raw nerve, in a role that is as equally complex and crucial.  Ed Harris (Radio, The Hours) is intense, as he can often be, but the performance by William Hurt (The Village, Tuck Everlasting) during the film's climax is the biggest surprise, comical yet imposing in his own way.

It's hard not to reflect on current world situations, particularly as it relates to terrorism, as the "violence begets violence" theme plays out here.  They say that those that do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and that is the central lesson learned in A History of Violence, making this something more substantial than a revenge thriller or character study.  It's heady stuff, not without flaws, but very gripping and haunting when it needs to be.  It will keep you on edge throughout.

Qwipster's rating:

2005 Vince Leo