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Empire List #448: A History of Violence

Most of the time movie stars sell movies. On rare occasions, a director has such a unique body of work that he is the selling point. David Cronenberg is one of those exceptions. He has created some of the most psychologically disturbing horror movies to play in Canada and around the world much to the pride/shame of critics. Some of his movies feature monsters that infect you from within and turn you into an abomination. With “A History of Violence”, his first collaboration with actor Viggo Mortensen, he shows the horrible things people can do without the help of monsters.

This movie came out in late September of 2005, just as the summer movie season ended and the fall season began. A perfect release date, since it is definitely not popcorn entertainment, but it does have enough solid performances for award considerations. I saw it on the big screen, during one of those rare times when a movie was released in English in Quebec City. I remember being surprised by the violence. I don’t mean by how much violence there was, but by how realistically painful it looked. It is not stylized or exaggerated it is simply accurate. When you pummel a guy’s face with your fist, blood won’t spray out like a fountain, but the guy will be lying on the ground in pain barely able to breathe.

The film opens in Millbrook, Indiana, a small American town where nothing much happens and people are fine with that. Local restaurant owner Tom Stall (Mortensen) has a beautiful wife (Maria Bello) and two children. His idyllic world begins to shatter when two armed men try to rob his place during closing hour. Its clear the thugs intend to hurt people, maybe even kill everyone inside. To everybody’s surprise, Tom springs into action and brutally kills the robbers. The patrons are shocked to see their mild-mannered friend covered in blood, but who cares? He saved their lives and is now a local hero.

Tom’s heroism attracts the attention of the media, which in turn causes the arrival of more dangerous characters. A sharp-dressed man called Fogarty (Ed Harris) walks into Tom’s restaurant wearing dark sunglasses. Fogarty claims Tom is in fact Joey Cusack, a career criminal from Philadelphia. Tom denies this, prompting Fogarty to take off his sunglasses and reveal a painful scar on the left side of his face. Now there’s a man with a history of violence written all over him.

Fogarty and his men begin following Tom’s family to convince him to go back to Philly where he has unfinished business. At the mall Fogarty asks Tom’s wife if she really knows her husband. That’s an interesting question. Just how did Tom manage to kill two armed men if he had never done it before?

His son Jack (Ashton Holmes) also begins asking questions. His dad tells him he shouldn’t fight at school. But, if Tom used violence to defend himself, when is it O.K for him to use it? Just exactly where do you draw the line?


Mortensen does a great job of playing a man who seems very calm and reassuring, but can turn into a killer in a flash. Bello is equalling strong as a mother whose family is slowly falling apart around her. She thought her life was perfect, but it would seem it was all a lie.

Hands down the best performance belongs to William Hurt, who plays head mobster Richie Cusack. Hurt is only on-screen for a total of eight minutes, yet he was rightfully nominated for an Academy Award. He plays a mobster who is charismatic, friendly, and quite frankly hilariously off-kilter. Yet he has no problem with shooting one of his own goons when they fail to get a job done.

This movie poses disturbing questions about violence and the violence within people. When bad people use violence against good people, it is unjustifiable. But what about when good people blow bad people away with a shotgun? Is the good person now just as bad as the dead guy?

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