The film A History of Violence, which arrived in theaters in September of 2005 – 15 years ago this week – was a significant motion picture for quite a few reasons. It represented director David Cronenberg’s resurgence, after a few flops in a row. It’s one of the best films ever adapted from a graphic novel — especially outside of the superhero genre — and offered some of the best work from most of its cast (Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, William Hurt).
A History of Violence featured sex scenes (between Mortensen and Bello) that are a mainstay on “sexiest sex scenes” lists, and it represented something of a comeback for William Hurt, who got his first Oscar nomination since the 1980s.
Overall, A History of Violence is the rare movie to take violence, and its consequences, seriously, while not being in any way smug or lecturing about it. It’s also one of cinema’s more intriguing portrayals of a marriage. All of that made it once of the best movies of the century’s first decade.
It represented director David Cronenberg’s resurgence, after a few flops in a row
The film centers on the Stall family, who live in a small town in Indiana. Dad Tom Stall (Mortensen) runs the local diner with his wife Edie (Bello), and his son and daughter. One night, robbers attack the diner, and Tom subdues and kills them both, giving him some media attention as a hero who saved lives.
Soon after, Tom gets a visit from a gangster (Ed Harris), who claims that Tom is in fact a long-missing former hitman from Philly, whose heroism has caused him to resurface and draw the attention of his past enemies. Tom denies the assertion, casting suspense over the second act of the movie over whether Harris’ gangster was telling the truth. Eventually, Tom ends up back in Philly, where he has a final showdown with his brother Richie (Hurt, overacting luxuriously). The film ends with him back in Indiana, on a sad, ambiguous note.
A History of Violence is probably Viggo Mortensen’s best performance, one of quiet and subtlety – pretty much the exact opposite of his Oscar-nominated turn in 2018’s Green Book. We absolutely buy him as both the mild-mannered small town diner keeper, and as the feared hitman. Not far behind is Bello, finally getting a movie star chance after years of TV and supporting roles (she’d played the den mother lead bartender five years earlier in Coyote Ugly).
The locations are all believable, even though the film was shot entirely in Ontario, and didn’t get near Indiana or Philly.
At the time he made A History of Violence, Cronenberg’s last few films were 1996’s Crash – which was a bit of a punchline at the time of its release, but has gained more respect over time, to the point where it’s not even the most disliked movie called Crash – 1999’s sci-fi film Existenz, and 2002’s Ralph Fiennes oddity Spider.
But A History of Violence earned Cronenberg his best reviews in years, and his next film, 2007’s Eastern Promises, was also well-received. He followed that up with 2011’s A Dangerous Method, along with Mortensen, and 2012’s Cosmopolis, one of the first films for adults to show that Robert Pattinson is a pretty good actor. His last film, to date, is 2014’s Maps to the Stars, a showbiz satire, starring Julianne Moore.
A History of Violence was nominated for two Oscars, Hurt for Best Supporting Actor and Josh Olson for Best Adapted screenplay. Hurt lost to George Clooney, for the mostly forgotten political movie Syriana, while Olson lost to Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, who wrote Brokeback Mountain. But despite the lack of Oscars, the film’s influence has only grown in the years since; HBO’s new TV series, Lovecraft Country, even titled an episode “A History of Violence.”
A History of Violence is available to rent on most VOD channels, but is not on any streaming service.