Warning: This review contains spoilers. Read at your own risk.
In an early scene of David Cronenberg's A History of Violence, an exchange takes place between a news reporter and Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen). The topic of conversation: An incident that ended with two robbers dead and unleashed Tom's, well, history of violence.
"Were you surprised at your own reaction to the situation?"
"Anyone would have done that we'd all be better to get back to normal."
At the center of the film is Tom Stall, a soft-spoken, ordinary family man. He has a wife, Edie (Maria Bello), and two kids, the teenaged Jack (Ashton Holmes) and precocious Sarah (Heidi Hayes). He owns a small diner where the coffee's excellent and everyone knows your name. These early scenes depicting small-town life are perfect. Rather than questioning the authenticity or truthfulness of this town, we just accept and believe. So ordinary and refreshing are these moments that we reach back for them as the plot thickens and secrets are revealed.
The film takes a dramatic turn one night when two men attempt to rob Tom's diner and threaten to kill him. Tom turns from a sweet, shy, ordinary man into a man who is outraged and eager to take their heads off. He ends up killing both men and is elevated to the status of local hero. But there is something strange about the robbery.
We learn that Tom Stall is, in fact, Joey Cusack, and he hails not from Indiana but Philadelphia. He has a dark past in Mob violence, primarily involving two menhis brother, Richie (William Hurt), and Carl Fogerty (Ed Harris), a man who still holds a grudge against Tom for severely scarring his face. At that realization, I will reveal no more of the plot. I will, however, say that Tom's new identity is so convincing that when town sheriff and family friend Sam (Peter MacNeill), questions him, Sam feels guilty for even asking Tom to tell the "truth."
Mortensen as Tom gives an unconventional yet Oscar-worthy performance. He is both complex and intensely likeable, while constantly struggling to suppress Joey. He is not schizophrenic but human. He loves his wife and children. He has given up a dark past to be regular and "normal."
Mortensen's performance is intriguingly understated and subtle. Notice the close-ups of Mortensen's face at various moments in the film, where we see him as both Tom and Joey. There is a sense of fear, as well as an acknowledgement of power, in his eyes every time. Mortensen never overacts or fakes tears. He knows what's at stakeand we understand that everything that happens in this film is necessary for Tom to preserve his new life. I won't tell you whether he succeeds. That's the beauty and the mystery of the film.
Maria Bello and Ashton Holmes give great supporting performances. Bello is piercing in her efforts to keep her family together and to do whatever is necessary to protect them. Two things drive her: love for her children, and, most importantly, love for her husband who has lied to her. Holmes, as Jack, captures a teenager plagued by elements of his father's past (though he doesn't know this at first) that manifest themselves at two very important moments in the film. While Tom struggles to hide his true self, Jack subsequently reveals this hidden quality. This is the most fascinating piece of the plot. It's a shame that it is also the most underdeveloped. The film could have benefited from a stronger father-son relationship.
However, the film is unflinching in its raw depiction of violence and gruesome images (with great support from the special-effects team and make-up artists). It forces us to jump outside of our comfort zones and open our eyes. It is not a definitive philosophical piece about why or how someone can end up like Tom. It doesn't have any answers. There are no hospitals, clinics, or diagnoses, although Edie does say at one point, "Are you a multiple personality schizoid or something?" while Jack calls Tom a "closet mobster dad." The film simply shows us a family shaken up by things that were supposed to leave and never return.
The ending, which I will not explain, may come as a bit of a surprise. It is silent, contemplative, apologetic, appropriate, and extremely powerful. It is as beautiful as it is heartbreaking. It is one of the truest moments I have ever witnessed on film. The final scene may turn off many audience members; perhaps they will feel unfulfilled. But there is simply no better way to end the story.
A History of Violence struggles in some areas of its plot, but ultimately gets many things rightin particular, its lead performance. When the credits began to roll, I had the feeling that Tom really needed a hug. I desperately wanted to give it to him.