By John H. Foote
At the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival, David Cronenberg brought to us his new film, A History of Violence, based on a popular graphic novel about secrets in a small town. Darkly brilliant, unsettling and frightening, it is a modern-day real-life horror film, among the finest of the decade.
Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is a small-town businessman, husband and father who runs a small diner on the Main Street of the town while his wife practices law. They are atypical of small-town America, hard working, good people who find their lives suddenly turned upside down.
When two very bade dudes come into Tom’s diner meaning to rob and do harm, they pull their guns to do murder. Tom lashes out, incredibly disarming one of them, seizing his gun, killing his partner and the boss in an instant. Suddenly national news, he is surprised when gangsters from Philadelphia come to his diner calling him “Joey”, as though they have known him. Tom puts it down to mistaken identity, but something is off.
Fogarty (Ed Harris) the horribly scarred leader of the trio claims Tom, as Joey, took barbed wire to his face years earlier, costing him an eye. Yet Fogarty is not easily swayed or rebuffed, he has absolute confidence the Tom is a killer named Joey Cusack. They follow his wife, they stalk Tom, they are everywhere in the town trying to get a handle on who Tom might really be. His wife Edie (Maria Bello) believes her husband, but the more Fogarty pushes, the more she sees Tom in action, her doubts become unsettling.
When they take his son, and deliver him to the farm, Tom suddenly lashes out killing all three men, once again displaying his talent for killing people. Before Fogarty dies, Tom says to him, “I should have killed you back in Philly.” That ends the mystery, Tom is Joey, he has always been Joey. And Joey Cusack was a very dangerous man indeed, known for his talent killing, known to be crazy with blood lust.
He left the life he lived, that of a killer, to find love and peace in a small town as Tom Stall, where he thought he could be invisible. No one, not even his wife knew of his history of violence.
So, he journeys to Philadelphia where he meets with his mafia chieftain brother Richie, portrayed with befuddled arrogance by the great William Hurt. But when all scores are settled, does Tom return to his life? Can he be accepted by his children and wife, knowing he once was a killer?
Viggo Mortensen is magnificent as Tom/ Joey, capturing the confusion of a man who lives a life he loves, and has left one he hated behind, or so he thought. When we see Joey emerge, he is a cold blooded, fast acting, ruthless killer with no conscience. He kills because he can, because he must, though as Tom he kills only to protect his family. But subtle glances speak volumes and we are not the least bit surprised when he reveals himself as Joey. Mortensen is quietly thoughtful yet can erupt into pure cold menace and raw fury when called upon to do so.
Maria Bello is superb as Evie, his wife, a lawyer who knows through instinct something is very wrong, and her husband may not be who he has claimed to be. A loving wife and mother, not so old not to be sexual, it is a terrific performance as she creates a smart woman questioning everything she knows to be true. There is a profound electricity between she and Mortensen, they are real together, hot together and believable in every way.
The great Ed Harris is chilling as Fogarty, the henchman for Richie, Tom’s mobster brother. His face horribly scarred by barbed wire wielded by Tom when he was Joey, he wants revenge for what was done to home. As always Harris is perfect, radiating danger, absolutely confident this man named Tom is Joey.
Stealing the film in a truly brilliant turn was William Hurt as Richie Cusack, the mob boss who lost much due to Joey’s actions long ago. There is genuine love between them, as Richie gently places his forehead on Toms’, but treachery as well, with Richie seeking to settle old scores for which he holds his brother responsible. More than twenty years have slipped by, but to Richie the wounds are fresh and bleeding. Hurt delivers his lines with an odd tone and pattern that only adds to the mystery of Richie and who he is.
When violence erupts in the film it is as it is in life, fast, unexpected, chaotic, and very real. Bones break, blood flows, damage is done, lives are either lost or in peril. Joey knows this violence all too well and seeks to be free of it.
In the end, the film is firmly on the shoulders of Mortensen, who is extraordinary as Tom, the quiet family man hiding a secret, wanting to escape a life of mayhem and murder. He again proves to be among the finest actors of his generation and deserved an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.
It was widely thought A History of Violence would finally see David Cronenberg land a long overdue nomination for Best Director for his deft handling of this narrative. No such luck, he is still waiting however deserving he might have been. Twice more the actor has worked with Cronenberg, earning a richly deserved nomination for Best Actor in the electrifying Eastern Promises (2007) and as Freud in A Dangerous Method (2011).
For A History of Violence (2006), William Hurt was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, his first nomination in nearly 20 years. Mortensen, Bello, Harris and Cronenberg were all equally deserving. The Academy blew it.
One of Canada’s best-known film critics, he spent 10 years on TV as co-host of Reel to Real, and another 10 in education (still writing as a critic) as Director of the Toronto Film School, where he created the curriculum for three programs and taught film history. Film has always been his passion. He has written for magazines such as Toronto Life, Fashion and Hollywood North, been quoted in the Los Angeles and New York Times, as well as the major Toronto dailies. Online he has written for such sites as The Wrap, In Contention, Awards Circuit and The Cinemaholic. His first book Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker, was published in 2010. His second Steven Spielberg: American Film Visionary, a massive volume, has just found a publisher and he’s working on American Film Renaissance – 1967-2018 with Nick Maylor. As a critic, he has had the good fortune to interview directors and stars such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, Emma Stone, Jane Fonda, and countless others. As he quips, “Everyone but Jack Nicholson!”