A History of Violence

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A 2005 crime thriller directed by David Cronenberg and written by Josh Olson, based on a 1997 Graphic Novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke. The film stars Viggo Mortensen as Tom Stall, a universally well-liked restaurant proprietor and family man living in the small town of Millbrook, Indiana, who is thrust into the spotlight after he kills two armed robbers who enter his diner and threaten his customers one night. This act wins him the admiration of the townsfolk, who hail him as a hero, but also the attention of Carl Fogarty, an Irish mobster from Philadelphia, who shows up in town shortly afterwards insisting to anyone who will listen that Tom is not who he says he is. Fogarty asserts that Tom's real name is Joey Cusack, and that he's a former enforcer for the mob who is living in Millbrook under an assumed name after maiming Fogarty, who has been looking for him for years to get revenge. The rest of the film is devoted to determining the truth of Fogarty's claims, as well as detailing the effects that the revelation that the man they've known for so many years may not be who he says he is have on Tom's wife and children.

The movie co-stars Ed Harris as Fogarty, Maria Bello as Tom's wife Edie, and William Hurt as Richie Cusack[1] (Fogarty's boss and Joey's brother). Also around are his son Jack (Ashton Holmes) and daughter Sarah (Heidi Hayes), as well as Sam Carney, the local sheriff (Peter MacNeill). An uncredited Stephen McHattie also appears in the early part of the film as one of the killers.

Being a Cronenberg film, it's not for the squeamish, though it does feature a somewhat more idyllic setting and less depressing ending than most of his movies. The "killing level" violence is actually contained into three surprisingly short parts of the movie, which helps to make it more effective.

Holds the distinction of being the last Hollywood film released on VHS.


Tropes used in A History of Violence include:
  • Action Survivor: Tom seems to be this at first, but is he?
  • Adaptation Distillation: Most people feel that the movie is far better than its source material.
  • All Guys Want Cheerleaders: Invoked in an early scene during which Edie dresses up as a cheerleader to seduce her husband, figuring he'll enjoy it since the two of them "never got to be teenagers together".
  • American Accents: Tom, Edie, and the other characters from Millbrook all speak in stereotypical flat, Midwestern accents; Carl, Richie, and the other mobsters speak in Philadelphia accents.
    • When Tom goes back to Philly to confront his past, he is met by one of the mob thugs. When he is asked if he is really Joey, Tom slips back into his old accent, completing and confirming his transition into Joey.
  • Asshole Victim: The two psychos robbing Tom's diner (due to the extremely disturbing opening sequence) and as mentioned below, to a lesser extent, the Jerk Jock too.
  • Attempted Rape: Tom is willing to let the two thugs at the beginning of the movie rob his diner, but he snaps when one of them tries to rape the waitress. Later on, Tom borderline-attempts to take his wife by force. After he realizes what he's doing and tries to stop, she grabs him and pulls him back in.
  • Ax Crazy: This was Joey in a nutshell; he tore up Fogarty's face and blinded his left eye with barbed wire.
    • They didn't call him "Crazy Joey" for no good reason.
  • Badass: Joey Cusack, to the point that even other hardened criminals were afraid of him. His nickname apparently was "Crazy Fuckin' Joey".
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Tom is thought of as one of the nicest people in Millbrook; he's also clearly the most deadly. Possibly a deconstruction, as the film suggests that no 'nice' person could possibly be this competent at hand-to-hand combat. Rather, the skill set comes from years of practice of associating with very unpleasant people, doing very unpleasant things.
  • Cain and Abel: Joey and Richie Cusack.
  • Contract on the Hitman: The mob has one out on Joey, which makes life difficult for Tom.
  • Conveniently Unverifiable Cover Story: Carl tells Edie that the life story Tom has told her is one of these.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: The crux of the movie is whether or not Tom has one.
  • Diner Brawl: The plot kicks-off after one of these.
  • Down on the Farm: Millbrook is depicted as a typical Midwestern town, and the Stall family lives in a farmhouse.
  • Eye Scream: Carl Fogarty is blind in his left eye, which Joey attempted to rip out with barbed wire.
  • Good People Have Good Sex: Played straight at first with Tom and Edie, who have a very passionate love life for a couple that's been married close to twenty years. Later subverted when, after she learns that her husband may have been a vicious criminal, Edie has even more passionate (if rough, and borderline violent) sex with him.
  • Happily Married: Tom and Edie, at first.
  • Improvised Weapon: During the robbery scene Tom blinds and disables one of the robbers with a pot of hot coffee. Joey also was apparently quite good at using these, if Fogarty is to be believed.
  • Interplay of Sex and Violence: Tom and Edie have sex twice in the film. The first time is at the fun end of wholesome. The second time...
  • In the Blood: The movie frequently toys with the question of whether violent behavior is In the Blood or not.
  • The Irish Mob: Carl and company are members, and claim Tom is as well.
  • I Should Have Done This Years Ago:

Tom: I should've killed you back in Philly.
Carl: Yeah Joey... you should have.

  • Jerk Jock: The bully who torments Jack at school.
  • Let's Get Dangerous: The two psychos at the beginning of the film mistake Tom for a hapless small town hick; it's the last mistake they ever make.
  • Mugging the Monster: If the robbers had only known how dangerous Tom was...
    • Also, to a lesser extent, the two bullies who tried to intimidate Jack in school, and found themselves hospitalized.
  • No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Jack gives one of these to a Jerk Jock who had been making his life hell after he learns more about who his father might be. He ends up hospitalizing the poor jackass.
  • Nothing Exciting Ever Happens Here: Doubly subverted/deconstructed; Millbrook is initially presented as idyllic precisely because nothing exciting ever happens there; when the bodies start piling up it's more upsetting and disturbing than it is exciting.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Tom, repeatedly.
  • One-Scene Wonder: William Hurt was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his one scene appearance as Richie Cusack.
  • Pretty Little Headshots: Averted, as you'd expect from a Cronenberg film. Tom shoots one of the robbers at the beginning of the movie in the back of the head, and his face more or less explodes as a result.
  • Reality Ensues: The movie does not shy away from depicting the actual consequences of violence. As mentioned above, when one of the robbers is shot in the head, we see him gasping his last breaths out of his ruined face. When Jack retaliates against the bully, the next thing we see is his father explaining the results: Jack has been suspended from school, the boy is in the hospital, and his family is considering pressing criminal charges.
  • Retired Badass: Tom/Joey - maybe, or maybe not.
  • The Reveal: Given the premise, there has to be one, no?
  • Stealth Pun: Given the disturbing and unsettling nature of this movie you wouldn't expect a pun. Given that it happens in a taut and emotionally tense scene it's entirely possible to miss it or believe it's unintentional (though that's unlikely, given the character's surname in the graphic novel was McKenna). Nonetheless, it's there:

Edie: How did you choose the name "Stall"?
Tom: It was available.

    • Actually, what he probably meant was that it had been recently vacated.
  • Suddenly Always Knew That: Tom, to everyone's surprise knows Kung Fu. The improbability of this given Tom's stated background is lampshaded by Carl:

Carl: "Ask him, Edie - how come he's so good at killing people?

  • That Man Is Dead: Joey Cusack, mob hitman - possibly.
  • Took a Level in Badass: Jack beats the hell out of a school bully who'd previously been tormenting him after finding out that his father may have once been a professional killer.
    • Plus the fact that he just killed a man. Even if the jock thought it was his father who killed the man, picking on the son of a man who has killed at least three men who were visibly thugs would make him Too Dumb to Live.
  • Vomit Indiscretion Shot: When Tom says he used to be Joey, Edie responds by running into the bathroom and vomiting.
  • Wham! Line: Tom: (to Fogerty) I should've killed you back in Philly.
  • Wire Fu: Brutally, brutally averted. Tom Stall is obviously extremely well-versed in HTH combat, but he sticks entirely to Boring but Practical moves. They're very bloody practical. Cronenberg bloody practical.
  1. Hurt had less than ten minutes of screentime, yet was still nominated for Best Supporting Actor.