A History of Violence
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In the small Indiana town of Millbrook, Tom Stall and his family live out a modest version of the American Dream. Tom owns and manages a diner on main street, simply dubbed Stall's. He and his loving wife, Edie (a lawyer), live on a small acreage outside town, where they raise their high-school age son, Jack, and a preschooler named Sarah.
But the Stalls' idyllic world is shattered the night two mass murderers on the run decide Tom's diner is an easy place to score some cash. They couldn't be more wrong. When they threaten to kill one of his waitresses, Tom Stall sheds his meek demeanor and easily dispatches the would-be thieves with their own weapons. His brutally efficient response earns him "home-town hero" accolades in the newspapers and on TV—attention Tom does his best to deflect.
With the media buzz, however, comes an unexpected visit from an ominous man in a sleek black car—and his three "associates." Carl Fogaty alleges Tom isn't who he says, that he is in fact a gangster from Philadelphia named Joey Cusack. The man's persistence and threatening behavior begins to unravel the fabric of the Stalls' storybook marriage. Is Tom the responsible, mild-mannered man Edie fell in love with? Or is he a brutal killer who's cloaked his history of violence under the guise of a family man? Tom insists he's not who Fogaty says he is. But the ease with which he eliminates threats to his family suggests otherwise—and leads to escalating mayhem.
Tom works hard at the diner and treats employees and customers with kindness. He loves his wife, who calls him the best man she ever met, and has raised his two children with a balanced mix of firmness and fairness.
Tom eschews the media spotlight. He also sees his actions as a measure of last resort; he is not a man spoiling for a fight. When his son, Jack, follows his lead and throttles two bullies at school, Tom tells him violence is not an appropriate means to settle disputes.
A customer at the diner mentions that he'll see someone later at church. Tom and Edie wear small, but obvious, crosses around their necks.
A cheerleader costume and see-through panties lead to oral sex when Tom and Edie find themselves home alone without the kids. The graphic and intimate scene leaves almost nothing to the imagination while at the same time never actually revealing any explicit nudity.
More disturbing is another drawn-out encounter between husband and wife that blurs the boundary between sex and violence—as well as the line between consensual sex and marital rape. Again, the scene is physically graphic while containing almost no nudity (the top of Tom's bare backside is briefly seen). By the time they're done having sex, Edie seems to be responding willingly, but it's filmed in such a way that it looks more like rape. Shortly thereafter, Edie comes out of the bathroom wearing a bathrobe that's wide open down the middle, briefly revealing the front of her body to the camera. That same night, the camera shows her back, which has a huge bruise in the middle—presumably from their combative lovemaking.
An early scene shows one of the two mass murderers in the office of a motel they've just robbed; one bloody corpse lies on the ground, while another is propped up in a desk chair. A little girl enters the room, crying, and the murderer raises his gun at her and pulls the trigger. Thankfully, we don't see the bullet's impact—perhaps the only time this movie demonstrates any restraint at all when it comes showing violence.
Tom throws coffee in the face of one of the men trying to rob him, then smashes the pot over his head. Tom grabs the assailant's gun and shoots the other attacker several times in the chest; the presumably dead man crashes through a window. Meanwhile, the coffee-covered man has unsheathed a huge buck knife, and pins Tom's foot to the floor with it. Tom responds by shooting him in the face; the camera shows his convulsing body and bloody, disfigured face as he dies.
Jack stands up to two thuggish tormentors at school, kicking one in the crotch and repeatedly hitting the other. The fight turns bloody when Jack continues pummeling the bully even after he's fallen to the ground, covering the floor and his face with blood. Later we learn that Jack's actions put the boy in the hospital and that his family is considering filing assault charges. When Tom tells Jack that they don't solve problems by hitting people, Jack retorts, "No, we shoot them." Tom ends the argument by slapping him hard across the face.
Tom breaks the neck of one of Fogaty's henchman and shoots two others at close range, resulting in a lot of bloodshed. Tom takes a bullet to his shoulder and is about to be killed by the man who shot him when Jack takes the mobster out from behind with a shotgun, spraying his father with even more blood. [Spoiler Warning] In a disturbing twist, Tom's brother, Richie, who happens to be part of a major crime syndicate, orders one of his goons to kill his brother by strangling him. Instead, Tom kills the man and one other guard with his bare hands by breaking their necks. Tom incapacitates another of Richie's guards, whom the mob boss then shoots in disgust. A fourth henchman meets his Maker via a bullet from Tom (behind closed doors). Richie confronts his brother, and Tom unflinchingly puts a bullet through his skull. The camera shows Richie laying on the ground, eyes still open, with blood pooling beneath his head.
Edie gets very angry at Tom and begins slapping him. Tom grabs her neck and chokes her against a wall. Then, in a hail of traded blows, they fall onto a set of stairs. (This is the prelude to the violent sexual encounter referenced in "Sexual Content.")
Crude or Profane Language
Roughly 15 uses each of the f- and s-words as well as half-a-dozen incidences of "g--d--n." God's or Jesus' names are taken in vain about a dozen times. One character hurls a graphic, sexually related epithet at another. There are at least 20 uses of other milder vulgarities.
Drug and Alcohol Content
One of the two mass murderers smokes a cigarette. Jack and his girlfriend share a smoke. Jack's high school bully drinks while driving. Tom orders a bottle of beer at a bar. Richie fills a glass with some kind of hard liquor.
Other Negative Elements
Part of Tom's relationship with his family is based on deception.
Anyone buying a ticket for a movie called A History of Violence shouldn't be surprised when they're assaulted by graphic images of death—which this film provides, in spades. The killings alone offer enough reason to steer clear of this blood-drenched tale. Add to them the disturbingly violent way Tom responds to his son and especially his wife when they confront his deception and you've got quite a toxic cocktail on your hands. Two explicit sex scenes and lots of obscenities seal the deal.
In addition to the R-rated content issues that push this film so far out of bounds, I found the story itself critically flawed. The first half, while including seriously objectionable content, at least paints a picture of family members who love and care for one another. In the second half, however, Tom, Edie and Jack all behave in ways that are radically inconsistent with their characterizations earlier in the film.
Obviously, director David Cronenberg set up Tom as a man whose past predisposes him toward explosive violence, given the right trigger. And that rationale works when he's responding to murderers in his diner. It absolutely does not work when he attacks his wife and slaps his son.
Nor do those characters' complete rejection of a man they'd previously loved, trusted and admired make much sense. I can understand how Edie and Jack would have a hard time accepting the idea that the conscientious, loving Tom had previously been a violent man. But instead of trying to understand his story, both characters treat him with contempt. Hence, Edie and Jack's "transformation" seems no less monstrous than Tom's. All are completely unbelievable.
If Cronenberg was trying to explore the question of how a family deals with deception when it comes to light, it's obliterated by the heavy-handed and unrealistic character changes each protagonist undergoes. It's yet another reason to let History become exactly that at the box office.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Viggo Mortensen as Tom Stall; Maria Bello as Edie Stall; Ashton Holmes as Jack Stall; Heidi Hayes as Sarah Stall; Ed Harris as Carl Fogaty; William Hurt as Richie Cusack
David Cronenberg ( )
New Line Cinema