The habit-forming pain

A History of Violence

Mortensen the Viggo-rous with Maria Bello.

Mortensen the Viggo-rous with Maria Bello.

Rated 4.0

In David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, Viggo Mortensen plays Tom Stall, the owner of a diner in a small Indiana town. Tom looks happy, pouring coffee and flipping burgers for his regular customers and then going home to his beautiful wife, Edie (Maria Bello), and their two kids, teenager Jack (Ashton Holmes) and 7-ish Sarah (Heidi Hayes). The Stalls enjoy an almost idyllic existence; everybody knows and likes Tom, and he and Edie clearly adore each other. Only the routine of Jack’s hassling by a high-school bully (Kyle Schmid) mars the perfection of their life.

But this is a David Cronenberg movie, and we know (if we didn’t, Howard Shore’s ominous music would tell us) that the good times can’t last. One night, as Tom and his crew are closing up the diner, two men (played by Stephen McHattie and Greg Bryk) show up demanding coffee in loud and menacing voices. Tom senses that these two won’t be happy with merely robbing the place, and we know he’s right because, unlike him, we’ve seen the men before: The movie opens with them checking out of a seedy little motel, having saved on travel expenses by murdering everyone on the staff. These two, we already know, are not ones to mess with.

But, as it happens, neither is Tom Stall, and when all the shards of glass and broken crockery have settled, the two thugs have lived just long enough to learn that. Tom disarms one of the men and kills them both, suffering only a stab wound in the foot. He becomes a hero. His story and his face make the 24-hour news channel, despite his modestly declining to be interviewed, and the next morning at the diner he has more customers than he can handle.

Mixed in among the codgers, rubes and farmhands is one customer who looks like he would certainly take some handling. Dressed in East Coast Mafia black and sporting a pair of sunglasses over a ghastly scar and a milk-white dead eye, he sits at the counter and regards Tom with an unfriendly grin. His name, we learn later, is Carl Fogarty (he’s played by Ed Harris), and he insists on calling Tom “Joey”—insists, in fact, that Tom is really someone named Joey Cusack. Tom says he doesn’t know who this Joey Cusack is, but Fogarty seems to think they have a score to settle. And Tom can’t seem to make him listen to reason.

In A History of Violence (written by Josh Olson, from the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke) Cronenberg seems to be saying something about the human predilection for violence—that civilization is little more than a thin layer covering the beast within, or something to that effect. There’s a certain irony, then, in the fact that Cronenberg himself doesn’t seem comfortable with his story until the bullets begin to fly. The early scenes are just a trifle overplayed, the small-town atmosphere just a bit too Mayberry RFD, with Tom and Edie swapping loving looks and gee-whiz-ain’t-it-all-swell dialogue. Details that don’t quite ring true, like the school bully harassing Jack just for making a perfectly ordinary catch in a baseball game, prompt wondering about exactly how much Olson and Cronenberg know, or even care, about small towns in Indiana.

But when the atmosphere turns menacing and Tom Stall has to fight for his family, Cronenberg is firing on all cylinders, and the movie crackles with excitement. There are no great twists or surprises in the plot, and in retrospect it seems almost absurdly simple. But it does veer off in an unexpected direction, sending Tom on a road trip that leads to (among other things, and not to spill too many beans) a vividly malevolent performance by, of all people, William Hurt, that blasé yuppie of yesteryear.

Cronenberg’s epigraph for A History of Violence could be that famous quote from Nietzsche about looking into the abyss while the abyss looks back at you. The movie’s ending leaves the Stall family seriously shaken but still timorously, guardedly optimistic. Whether or not Tom had “a history of violence” at the beginning of the movie, they all have one by the end, and they’re not really sure exactly what it’s done to them.