A History of Violence
Format: 35mm Colour
Runtime: 95 min
New Line Productions Inc.
Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) lives in small-town Millbrook, Indiana with his lawyer wife Edie (Maria Bello), teenaged son Jack (Ashton Holmes) and young daughter Sarah (Heidi Hayes). He appears to be a model citizen living a normal, unremarkable, even idyllic life, until one day two menacing men attempt a robbery at his modest diner. Tom springs into action, killing both robbers and saving the lives of everyone in the restaurant. In the process, he becomes a local hero and a national news story.
As events unfold, another enigmatic stranger – the sinister, mafia-connected Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) – arrives in town, convinced that Tom is actually an old acquaintance from Philadelphia named Joey. As Fogarty subtly harasses Tom and his family, demanding he confess to his “true” identity and return with Fogarty to Philadelphia, doubts arise within Tom’s family; they begin to question how much they can trust him, and Edie in particular wonders whether Tom is really who he says he is.
Adapted from the 1997 graphic novel by John Wagner (Cronenberg was unaware of the source material until pre-production, and inserted two pivotal sex scenes that are not in the book), A History of Violence is, on the one hand, David Cronenberg’s most conventional film: a seemingly straightforward mystery-thriller with a studio-sized budget and marketing campaign and a big-name cast. On the other hand, it is arguably his most brilliantly subversive and prescient work, borrowing classical tropes from the Hollywood Western genre to investigate the duality of good and evil and pose questions that raise allegorical parallels with United States foreign policy and the ongoing war in Iraq: What do you do when your beloved patriarch turns out to be a psychotic killer? Can you still sit down with him at the end of the day and be one big happy family? If so, what does that say about the family’s relationship to the patriarch’s legacy of violence? Is it righteous and just, perhaps even empowering? If so, what does that say about the family’s moral character? Do we need to resort to violence to not only protect but to respect ourselves, to retain some measure of good, or does using violence make us inherently evil?
Like Cronenberg’s previous feature, Spider, A History of Violence is more interested in asking questions than in offering answers. As such, it achieves a provocative but elusive tone that favours thematic depth and ambiguity and rewards repeat viewings. The film sees Cronenberg continuing to explore his characters’ psychological relationship to violence and persecution, particularly the ways in which these elements are interconnected with one’s relationship to family, sex and domesticity.
A History of Violence was one of the most acclaimed films of 2005. It had its world premiere as part of the Cannes Film Festival, was named to dozens of top ten lists, earned two Academy Award® and Golden Globe nominations and received numerous accolades from critics’ associations across North America, including Best Canadian Film, Best Picture and Best Director from the Toronto Film Critics Association and Best Director and Best Supporting Actor (Ed Harris) from the National Society of Film Critics in the United States. In addition to wide critical acclaim, the independently released film did reasonably well at the box office, bringing in $31.5 million in North America and several million more internationally.
Although Cronenberg came on board once the project was already ramping up under the auspices of New Line Productions, the film boasts the director’s distinctive stamp. It was shot entirely in Ontario and saw Cronenberg working with several of his loyal family of Canadian collaborators; as such, its status as a truly Canadian creative project outweighed funding considerations (from a financing perspective, it is an American film) and it was recognized as one of Canada’s Top Ten of 2005, a list by an independent, national panel of filmmakers, programmers, journalists and industry professionals.