Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) lives with his wife Edie (Maria Bello) and their two children, Jack (Ashton Holmes) and Sarah (Heidi Hayes) in a small town in Indiana. Tom runs a diner, everyone in town knows him, he and Edie have the occasional date night and they live a very quiet life. One day, two killers on a spree, enter the diner and threaten customers and his waitress. Tom swiftly, and surprisingly, puts the two killers out of commission. Dubbed a local hero, every news channel runs a story on the heroic event, plastering Tom's picture all over the television. These stories attract the attention of Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris), a mobster from Philadelphia who insists Tom is Joey Cusack, a former hitman who worked for his brother Richie Cusack (William Hurt). Tom doesn't know what he is talking about. Carl hangs around and begins to make things uncomfortable for the Stall family.
"A History of Violence", directed by David Cronenberg, and based on a graphic novel, is a very good film, maybe one of the best I have seen so far this year.
The best and most convincing thing about "History" is the acting. Mortensen, Bello and Ashton Holmes are all great. They are entirely convincing as the members of the Stall family, living in rural Indiana, enjoying their small town life. Viggo Mortenson (the "Lord of the Ring" series, but I didn't really need to tell you that, did I) is great as Tom. From the opening moments, when we first meet him and his wife drives him to work, we get the picture; small town guy, pleased with his small town life. Maria Bello ("Secret Window", "The Cooler") is also very good as Edie, his wife. Edie is a modern woman; she works as a lawyer during the day, but, much like her husband, her family comes first. Ashton Holmes plays their teenage son, who has the typical problems any teenager has; because he isn't the greatest athlete, he is picked on by other guys. He can handle them with words, but that only makes them more determined to beat the living cr*p out of him. The Stall's also have a young daughter, Sarah.
Life is good for them until a couple of guys arrive in town. Drifting from town to town, looking for small businesses to hold up, they are psychopaths who think nothing of killing people who get in their way. The film opens with an act of violence by these two, setting the tone for the rest of their rampage. Finally, they make it to the small Indiana town and stop in Tom's diner just as he is closing. He decides to serve them, to keep them calm but things quickly escalate and Tom becomes a hero, saving his waitress and the inevitable carnage that would result from these two monsters.
As soon as this happens, the media swarms his home and he becomes uncomfortable, trying to avoid the media. This same attention attracts the eye of Carl Fogarty (Harris) and his two sidekicks. They insist Tom is an old "friend" Joey Cusack, the man who gave Fogarty the scaring around his lame eye. Fogarty listens with deaf ears as Tom protests that he is not this Joey person, Edie doesn't listen either.
But, as the film progresses, and Carl becomes more insistent, and begins to take matters into his own hands, Edie and their son, Ashton, begin to have their doubts.
The violence that becomes a part of their lives also changes them, making their transformation all the more interesting.
As Tom's identity becomes questioned by more and more people, he starts to take matters into his own hands. He can't have Fogarty and his men harassing or threatening his family and they won't simply go away. He has to solve the problem. Richie Cusack (William Hurt) soon tracks Tom down and Tom realizes that he won't have a moment's peace until he solves the problem with Richie. These scenes are good. But the real bread and butter of the film, what makes it so powerful, is watching the violence transform the life of the Stall family.
Cronenberg does such a great job of portraying this simple family that we readily notice when they start to transform, when they start to have doubts. Tom does everything in his power to make his wife and family continue to believe in him, even as they witness him using violence to protect them, that it is almost heart wrenching to watch their loss of faith in the man they love.
Even more interesting is watching the effects of violence on Edie and Jack. Each is equally amazed at all of the events that transpire around them, but they react in slightly different ways. As you watch, the action is riveting because we have already invested in these characters and want to see how the action turns out.
There are two scenes between Tom and Edie which are very erotic. The first happens early on, when Tom and Edie are still Tom and Edie. They come home and have a little role playing fantasy. At first, it seems silly but Cronenberg quickly amps up the eroticism and this scene adds to their portrayal of a modern American couple. Later, another scene, equally erotic, but very different, helps to define the change in their relationship.
The film opens with the psychotic drifters checking out of a small motel. Of course, we don't immediately realize they are psychotic, but this bit of information quickly becomes clear. Initially, I thought this was a prologue because one of the characters bears a striking resemblance to a young Viggo Mortensen. I think Cronenberg wants the confusion to exist as a way of linking Tom's questionable past to the current day. When the scene quickly cuts to Viggo, as Tom, walking into his home, there is still a question about how that younger guy fits into the story. Was it a flashback to Tom's life as a young man? Only when the two guys enter Tom's diner and start threatening people do we realize that they are two separate people. But the question still remains that they may be linked in other less tangible ways.
"A History of Violence" is a great film, featuring outstanding performances, an interesting story, great direction and a riveting story. Don't miss it.