Movie Review

A History of Violence

Tom Stall had the perfect life... until he became a hero.
A History of Violence Movie Poster

US Release Date: 09-23-2005

Directed by: David Cronenberg


  • Viggo Mortensen
  • Tom Stall
  • Maria Bello
  • Edie Stall
  • William Hurt
  • Richie Cusack
  • Ed Harris
  • Carl Fogaty
  • Ashton Holmes
  • Jack Stall
  • Heidi Hayes
  • Sarah Stall
  • Stephen McHattie
  • Leland Jones
  • Greg Bryk
  • Billy Orser
  • Peter MacNeill
  • Sheriff Sam Carney
Average Stars:
Reviewed on: September 26th, 2005
Viggo Mortensen in A History of Violence.

Viggo Mortensen in A History of Violence.

A History of Violence certainly lives up to its name, containing some very graphic violence. What starts as a slow paced, idyllic version of a small town all-American family, devolves into the sort of carnage you'd normally associate with a Quentin Tarantino movie.

Based upon the graphic novel of the same name, the movie tells the story of Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), a husband, father and owner of the local diner in Millbrook, Indiana. When one day two men appear in the diner just at closing time with the intention of robbing it and threaten to kill one of his employees to prove they're serious, Tom reacts by disarming one of the men and then shooting both of them. As an example of the movies graphic violence, the bloody vestiges of one man's face is shown in close up, with his jaw missing and blood and muscle oozing out of it.

Tom's actions make him a local hero and the story is picked up nationally. A few days later, three men show up in the diner claiming to know Tom, but by the name Joey Cusack. Clearly mobsters of some sort, Tom denies all knowledge of them or Joey, but clearly something is amiss. The question then becomes, is Tom who he says is? Is he in the witness protection program? Or is there some even more sinister reason for his mistaken identity?

The mystery is explained in full, but unfortunately not all of the motivations are as clearly laid out in the story. By the film's climax, we know all of what people did, but not necessarily why they did them. It doesn't hurt the flow of the story, but had it been explained, it would have strengthened it.

Mortensen and the rest of the cast are uniformly good, with Maria Bello playing Tom's wife (who's as much in the dark as the audience as to the truth of what's happening), and Ed Harris playing the sinister mobster who's arrived to accuse Tom of being Joey. Mortensen plays the role close to his chest, he reminds you of the sort that their neighbor will eventually describe as "such a nice quiet guy. Never started any trouble." Only Tom's young daughter annoyed me, but that's more due to the writing and direction than Heidi Hayes' performance. She's just too precocious and precious, particularly in the film's final moment.

Without ever being preachy, the movie is also commenting upon the nature of violence. Can it be passed from father and son? Are sex and violence connected? (They certainly are in this movie.) These aren't questions thrust in your face, but they're there if you want to think about them.

Perhaps the only weak part of the movie is that after a violent opening, the story does take a little while to get moving. A little too much time is spent showing just how idyllic Tom's world is.

A History of Violence is like a Tarantino movie in that it is graphically violent. Unlike a Tarantino movie though, there's no joy or pleasure in the violence. Instead, there are only questions.

Reviewed on: March 15th, 2006
Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello in A History of Violence.

Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello in A History of Violence.

Whereas Scott was annoyed by the daughter, I disliked the son, Jack's, story line. One of his first scenes is where he catches a fly ball hit by a very arrogant, show off fellow student. Of course this leads to the show off trying to start a fight with Jack in the locker room. Catching his ball was such a major blow to this jerk's ego that days later he still wants to beat up Jack. The movie wants Jack to have a violent conflict but the situation he finds himself in is just too fabricated to be taken seriously. An insecure popular kid must beat up an unpopular kid just because he caught his ball? The verbal exchanges during these scenes seem too pat to be sincere. Couldn't the writers have found a better way to put Jack in a threatening situation?

Later in the movie Jack finds out about his Dad's past and reacts in an unconvincing way. I doubt the writer of this movie had a son when he wrote this. My sons would have asked all kinds of questions. Jack acts betrayed whereas I believe most sons would have been curious. Jack reacts more like a wife would have than a son.

I do not believe the sex in the movie is about connecting it to violence. The two sex scenes show Edie have sex with Tom and sex with Joey. The first sex scene between Edie and Tom is a little playful and very affectionate. The second sex scene has Edie slap and yell at Joey. They then have rough sex on the stairs that leaves Edie with bruises on her back. The two sex scenes are about compare and contrast between the two characters of Tom and Joey and how Edie reacts to them.

The gore is graphic but the best thing about A History of Violence is Mortensen's performance. Mortensen's best asset as an actor is that he fully understands the concept of less is more. He never overacts or acts as if he is playing to the back row. Even in the action scenes he never seems larger than life. His performance is subdued yet very effective.

Reviewed on: May 3rd, 2013
Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen in A History of Violence.

Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen in A History of Violence.

What I liked about Mortensen's performance was that you could tell just by looking at his face whether he was Tom or Joey. Tom has a friendly open face, whereas Joey is clearly psychotic with a leer in his eyes and a lopsided grin plastered on his mug. When he opens his mouth the differences between them become even more pronounced. Tom speaks in a mild mannered voice while Joey talks with a distinct Irish Philly street accent. A performance of startling simplicity yet with an underlying feral ferocity.

Too bad he was overlooked by the Academy, although they did nominate William Hurt for supporting actor; for one scene and less than 10 minutes of screen time. It was also nominated for adapted screenplay.

Scott, normally I agree with you about movies that run too long but here I didn't think the story was slow to get going after the initial action scene at the diner. On the contrary I was pleasantly surprised at just how quickly it moved. The entire movie is just 90 minutes long.

Eric, I think you are nitpicking about the son's interaction with the bully and also the father/son scene.  Bullies often target a specific kid and then invent reasons to attack them, and not all families have as open a dialogue between members as others. The way their relationship was shown up to that point, it seemed natural to me that Jack would be too shocked to immediately begin asking his father a bunch of questions about his abruptly-revealed, ultra-violent past.

David Cronenberg has a reputation as a thinking man's director with a penchant for grotesque imagery in his films. A History of Violence certainly fits that bill. As my brothers mentioned, carnage reigns during much of the film. Body parts get shot off and people's faces get smashed in. Although the story is more grounded in reality than many of his films, which often dabble in science fiction.

Trivia buffs may be interested to learn this was the very last major Hollywood movie to be released in the VHS format.

This film illustrates several ideas as suggested by the title. First and most obviously, there is Tom's secret past. As Joey he has a long personal history of violence. He tried to elude them, but his violent pigeons eventually found him and came home to roost. Secondly, violence has often been used throughout human history to settle disputes, as it ultimately does for the Stall family. Thirdly, is the point of the movie the innate violence found in evolution? What Darwin called, “The survival of the fittest.” Certainly Tom's violent past as Joey enables him to protect his family from extreme danger. The catch-22 being that they would never have been in this danger were it not for Tom's hidden true identity. And, as Scott wrote, the story also implies some sort of genetic predisposition for violence in Jack.

A History of Violence is equally entertaining and thought provoking.