The film stars Viggo Mortensen as Tom Stall, a universally well-liked restaurant proprietor and family man living in the small town of Millbrook, Indiana, who is thrust into the spotlight after he kills two armed robbers who enter his diner and threaten his customers one night. This act wins him the admiration of the townsfolk, who hail him as a hero, but also the attention of Carl Fogarty, an Irish mobster from Philadelphia, who shows up in town shortly afterwards insisting to anyone who will listen that Tom is not who he says he is. Fogarty asserts that Tom's real name is Joey Cusack, and that he's a former enforcer for the mob who is living in Millbrook under an assumed name after maiming Fogarty, who has been looking for him for years to get revenge. The rest of the film is devoted to determining the truth of Fogarty's claims, as well as detailing the effects that the revelation that the man they've known for so many years may not be who he says he is have on Tom's wife and children.
The movie co-stars Ed Harris as Fogarty, Maria Bello as Tom's wife Edie, and William Hurt as Richie Cusacknote (Fogarty's boss and Joey's brother). Also around are his son Jack (Ashton Holmes) and daughter Sarah (Heidi Hayes), as well as Sam Carney, the local sheriff (Peter MacNeill). An uncredited Stephen McHattie also appears in the early part of the film as one of the killers.
Being a Cronenberg film, it's not for the squeamish, though it does feature a somewhat more idyllic setting and less depressing ending than most of his movies. The "killing level" violence is actually contained into four surprisingly short parts of the movie, which helps to make it more effective.
Holds the distinction of being one of the final Hollywood films released on VHS. Contrary to what some sources say, it actually wasn't the last—that honor later went to a rare Disney Movie Club print of Cars, but nevertheless, A History of Violence remains the last major Hollywood film with a wide release on VHS.
- Action Survivor: Tom seems to be this at first, but is he actually something darker?
- Adaptational Villainy:
- Joey Muni was a young street criminal, but nothing like the "Crazy Fuckin' Joey" that the film portrays. The reason he used barb wire on Fogarthy's comic counterpart was because Joey had nothing else on hand, and the man just chopped one of his finger with an axe, leaving Joey with little option but to be pragmatic.
- Richie Benedetto, Joey's friend and partner in crime, becomes a criminal don named Richie Cussack in the movie while in the comic his biggest crime was stealing the mob and murdering the don to avenge his brother.The NYPD officiously praise the two boys for what they did.
- Adult Fear: When Edie thinks her daughter's been taken at the mall.
- All Girls Want Bad Boys: Edie seems far more attracted to Tom when she finds out about his potential violent past, to the point of them having rough, desperate sex on the stairs. She doesn't seem proud of it, though.
- All Guys Want Cheerleaders: Invoked in an early scene during which Edie dresses up as a cheerleader to seduce her husband, figuring he'll enjoy it since the two of them "never got to be teenagers together".
- Ambiguous Disorder: Richie Cusack doesn't seem completely sane; he can have an odd speech pattern, had Troubling Unchildlike Behavior as a child, and seems almost divorced from normal human emotions. Noticably he has little reaction to ordering the death of his own brother just for some more respect, reacts with annoyance more than fear/horror at seeing his men being decimated by Joey in the same room, kills his own man for failing him while Joey is still in the building, and isn't particularly upset when Joey is about to execute him.
- Artistic License Law: Tom is worried about the families of the two bullies his son beat up suing his family, but any decent lawyer could easily get the charges dismissed. There's been a pattern of the two bullies harassing Jack, witnesses could attest that the two bullies started things in the hallway, and that Jack tried several times to walk away but couldn't because the bullies were shoving him and not letting him go. Tom's concern might also simply be the potential expense of being sued and the fact that it might mean greater scrutiny for him, leading to his true identity being revealed.
- Attempted Rape: Tom is willing to let the two thugs at the beginning of the movie rob his diner, but he snaps when one of them tries to rape the waitress. Later on Tom borderline-attempts to take his wife by force. After he realizes what he's doing and tries to stop, she grabs him and pulls him back in.
- Ax-Crazy: This was Joey in a nutshell; he tore up Fogarty's face and blinded his left eye with barbed wire. Even other hardened criminals were afraid of him; they didn't call him "Crazy Fuckin' Joey" for no good reason.
- A good example of this is after Jack kills Fogarty by shooting him in the back at point-blank range, for a moment Tom's expression is one of psychotic glee before he catches himself. As Edie later comments, when she looked outside at that moment, she saw Joey.
- Becoming the Mask: Tom/Joey appears not to recognise Fogarty at first, and David Cronenberg suggested in the commentary that this is because he's bought into his role so much.
- Beware the Nice Ones:
- Tom is thought of as one of the nicest people in Millbrook; he's also clearly the most deadly. Possibly a deconstruction, as the film suggests that no truly 'nice' person would be this competent and ruthless at hand-to-hand combat. Rather, the skill set comes from years of practice, and associating with very unpleasant people, doing very unpleasant things.
- Also, Jack. When he finally snaps and turns the table on the bullies, he opens up one very frightening can of whoop ass.Jack: Are you laughing? Are you laughing NOW, you motherfuckin' cock-sucking piece of shit!"
- Bittersweet Ending: All the mobsters are dead, but Tom/Joey has alienated his son and his wife in the process, possibly irreversibly. Still, it is implied that his family has decided to accept him for who he his, so there's hope.
- Boring, but Practical: Joey's fighting style consists entirely of simple but brutally effective crippling strikes. He has a particular fondness for crushing windpipes.
- Cain and Abel: Joey and Richie Cusack.
- Combat Pragmatist: Tom. He can kill an armed man with his bare hands if he has to, but why bother to use your bare hands when there's a hot pot of coffee nearby?
- Contract on the Hitman: The mob has one out on Joey, which makes life difficult for Tom. It's not for the usual reasons, though - Joey attacked Fogerty, a made man, apparently without provocation and has been on the run ever since.
- Conveniently Unverifiable Cover Story: Carl tells Edie that the life story Tom has told her is one of these.
- Dark and Troubled Past: The crux of the movie is whether or not Tom has one.
- Deconstructor Fleet: The film basically takes all the typical action tropes and turn them on their head as disturbing, if not horrific, when placed in the person of a small town family man.
- Diner Brawl: The plot kicks-off after one of these.
- Double-Meaning Title: Does it refer to the main character's own history of violence, or is it about how violence perpetuates through history?
- Down on the Farm: Millbrook is depicted as a typical midwestern town, and the Stall family lives in a farmhouse.
- Even Evil Has Standards: Richie has this reaction to what Joey did to Fogerty; in addition to marring his reputation, he says it was disgusting.Jesus, Joey, you took his eye. Barbed wire, was it? That's disgusting.
- Eye Scream: Carl Fogarty is blind in his left eye, which Joey attempted to rip out with barbed wire.
- Faux Affably Evil:
- Fogarty and his men.
- Richie seems to be Affably Evil at first, but soon reveals himself to be this.
- Good People Have Good Sex: Played straight at first with Tom and Edie, who have a pretty decent love life for a couple that's been married close to twenty years. Later subverted when, after she learns that her husband may have been a vicious criminal, Edie has even more passionate (if rough, and borderline violent) sex with him.
- During their first love scene Tom and Edie are shown changing position for a 69er, and David Cronenberg (in the commentary) jokes that it might well be the first time this position has been shown in a Hollywood movie.
- Groin Attack: Deconstructed and played for drama. The first move Jack makes when he finally snaps from being bullied is to kick one of his bully's balls as hard as he can, which instantly takes him out of the fight. A solid groin attack is incapacitating, to the point that, as is later being discussed, he ended up needing hospitalization from how hard he was kicked.
- Happily Married: Tom and Edie, at first.
- Home Field Advantage: Deconstructed and averted. When murderous mobsters come knocking on your door, your house is just a house.
- Improvised Weapon: During the robbery scene Tom blinds and disables one of the robbers with a pot of hot coffee. Joey also was apparently quite good at using these, if Fogarty is to be believed.
- In the Blood: The movie frequently toys with the question of whether violent behavior is In the Blood or not. It seems to have a hard time making up its mind about whether In the Blood or Taught by Experience is in effect, or if the two coexist together.
- Interplay of Sex and Violence: Tom and Edie have sex twice in the film. The first time is at the fun end of wholesome. The second time... It's violent and especially not sexy.
- The Irish Mob: Carl and company are members, and claim Tom is as well.
- I Should Have Done This Years Ago:Tom: I should've killed you back in Philly.
Carl: Yeah Joey... you should have.
- Jawbreaker: When Tom shoots the robber in the head, the bullet passes through his face and exits in such a way that his jaw is shattered. The camera even gives a nice close-up shot of the huge hole in the side of the robber's face as he struggles to gasp for air.
- Jerk Jock: The bully who torments Jack at school is a relatively straight example of this, though even his teammates think he's taking it too far when Jack clearly has no interest in fighting.
- Kids Are Cruel: Ritchie fondly recalls that when their mother brought the newborn Joey from the hospital, he tried to strangle him in his crib.
- Let's Get Dangerous!: The two psychos at the beginning of the film mistake Tom for a hapless small town hick; it's the last mistake they ever make.
- The Maiden Name Debate: Edie is furious that her last name is literally meaningless, as 'Stall' is just a false name picked at random by Tom.
- Mugging the Monster:
Sidekick Bully: Who the fuck was that?
- If the robbers had only known how dangerous Tom was, they might have picked a different diner. They didn't, and they ended up dead for it.
- The two bullies who tried to intimidate Jack in school found themselves hospitalized when Jack hit his Rage Breaking Point.
- The bullies averted this earlier in the movie, however. They nearly got into a car accident with the pair of robbers, and the lead bully starts to go to say something to them, but then he gets a look at the two men, and something he sees makes him just freeze and let them go by without a word. Judging by an exchange he has with the other bully, he was deeply freaked out by something he sensed about the two.
Lead Bully: [scared and barely hiding it] I don't know. And I don't wanna know. [Drives off in the opposite direction at high speed]
- Never Bring a Knife to a Gun Fight: Tom just unloaded four bullets into Billy's chest. What's his companion decide to do? Pull a knife and stab Tom in the foot. Reality Ensues when Tom pulls the trigger at point blank range from the robber's head.
- No Ending: The mobsters are all dead, but whether Tom and Edie's marriage survives is left hanging.
- No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Jack gives one of these to a Jerk Jock who had been making his life hell after he learns more about who his father might be. He ends up hospitalizing the poor jackass just as well as Joey could have.
- Nothing Exciting Ever Happens Here: Doubly subverted/deconstructed; Millbrook is initially presented as idyllic precisely because nothing exciting ever happens there; when the bodies start piling up, it's more upsetting and disturbing than it is exciting.
- Obfuscating Stupidity: Tom, repeatedly. He used to be a mob hitman, and acts like an innocent family man who would never hurt a fly. Possibly played with, as the Director's Commentary hints that Joey has spent so long pretending to be Tom and wanting to be Tom that it's very nearly become a case of Believing Their Own Lies. For example, Cronenberg states that Tom/Joey legitimately doesn't recognize Fogarty when Fogarty first comes into the diner because of this.
- One-Man Army: Joey versus a house full of mobsters. They should have brought more mobsters.
- Parental Hypocrisy: When Jack is suspended from school for beating up a bully, Tom berates him for it.Tom: In this family, we do not solve problems by hitting people!
Jack: No, in this family, we shoot them! (Tom hits Jack)
- Pragmatic Adaptation: The film is very different from the original comic. In the graphic novel, Tom McKenna is really Joey Giuseppe, who went after the mob to get revenge for his friend and maintains the support of his family throughout. In the film, Tom Stall is really Joey Cusack, a former enforcer who randomly snapped one day and has been on the run ever since. The changes shift the focus off of the action and onto the slow implosion of Tom's family.
- Pretty Little Headshots:
- Averted, as you'd expect from a Cronenberg film. Tom shoots one of the robbers at the beginning of the movie in the back of the head, and his face more or less explodes as a result.
- Not that it stops him from trying to breathe, at least for a while.
- Played straight with Richie though, where he's shot point blank in the head, the bullet goes through, and a lot of blood gets out, but his head stays intact.
- Averted, as you'd expect from a Cronenberg film. Tom shoots one of the robbers at the beginning of the movie in the back of the head, and his face more or less explodes as a result.
- Psychotic Smirk: Tom sports one briefly after Jack kills Fogarty.
- Ray of Hope Ending: Tom manages to kill all the mobsters, yet it's unknown whether he'll be able keep his family together. Still, the small gestures they show of giving him some food when he enters, rather than ignoring him indicate acceptance, so there's hope.
- Reality Ensues: The movie does not shy away from depicting the actual consequences of violence, including wounds and damage caused by it.
- When one of the robbers is shot in the head, the camera focuses on him gasping his last breaths out of his ruined face. Naturally, he dies from such a wound.
- When Jack retaliates against the bullies, Jack kicks one square in the balls, and punches another so hard that blood spills onto the floor. The next thing that is shown is Tom explaining the results: Jack has been suspended from school for fighting, the bullies he attacked are in the hospital, and his family is considering pressing criminal charges.
- Retired Badass/Retired Monster: This is the major question of the story. Is Tom who he says he is, or is he really one these tropes?
- Stealth Pun: Given the disturbing and unsettling nature of this movie you wouldn't expect a pun. Given that it happens in a taut and emotionally tense scene it's entirely possible to miss it or believe it's unintentional (though that's unlikely, given the character's surname in the graphic novel was McKenna). Nonetheless, it's there:Edie: How did you choose the name "Stall"?
Tom: It was available.
- Actually, what he probably meant was that it had been recently vacated.
- Take That!: When David Cronenberg was asked about the "obvious influence" of Shyamalan on A History of Violence, Cronenberg simply responded "I HATE that guy! Next question."
- The Reveal: Given the premise, there has to be one, no?
- Suddenly Always Knew That: Tom, to everyone's surprise, knows how to fight and how to use a gun, and can do so calmly, efficiently and very lethally against a pair of murderous criminals. The improbability of this given Tom's stated background is lampshaded by Carl:Carl: Ask him, Edie - how come he's so good at killing people?
- That Man Is Dead: Tom Stall thought he made a complete break with his past as Joey Cusack, as he eventually explains to Edie... but it turns out Joey will come to the surface under the right circumstances, and the events of the film give Joey plenty of chances to do just that.
- Third-Person Person: In the hospital, when his wife asks him who he really is, Tom briefly talks about Joey.Tom: I thought I killed Joey. I buried him in the desert.
Edie: Are you crazy? Are you like some multiple-personality schizoid? What?
- Too Dumb to Live: Carl Fogerty is so fucking stupid, you'd think Joey took out a double scoop of his brains in addition to blinding him in one eye. Show up at the house of someone you know is extremely dangerous with only two other men? Check. Tell one of your men to approach within arm's length of said extremely dangerous person in order to take him prisoner? Check. Turn your back on this dangerous person, assuming everything is going to go according to plan and he won't resist being taken captive? Check. Lose both your mooks because you're too stupid to think someone won't fight for their life? Check. Get extremely lucky and wound your enemy, gain the advantage, then run your mouth making sure you get the last word, giving the man's son all the time in the world to walk up behind you completely unnoticed and blow you in two with a double-barreled shotgun? Check. Fucking A, Carl. It's amazing your own organization didn't get fed up with stupidity and drown you in a toilet years ago.
- Richie Cusack's mooks are very incompetent. All they had to do was shoot Joey dead, but instead they try to strangle him with a wire. When you have to shoot, shoot, don't strangle!
- Richie Cusack is also pretty fucking stupid. Joey surprises one of Richie's incompetent mooks and shuts the door with Richie outside the house. So what Richie does? He puts his gun under his armpit and searches for his key to open a door that wasn't even locked, totally letting his guard down when his brother opens the door.
- Took a Level in Badass: Jack beats the hell out of a school bully who'd previously been tormenting him after finding out that his father may have once been a professional killer.
- Violence Is Disturbing: The entire point of the movie. It not only deliberately avoids making violence glamorous, but shows the results in their horrific outcome - also legal, not just physical. The story also explores what kind of twisted psycho it takes to be such efficient killer as Joey. Oh, and then there is the duo of the serial killers from the opening and their actions.
- Vomit Discretion Shot: When Tom says he used to be Joey, Edie responds by running into the bathroom and vomiting.
- Wham Line: When Fogerty has Tom at his mercy.Fogerty: You have anything to say before I blow your brains out, you miserable prick?
Tom: *sighs* I should've killed you back in Philly.
- Wham Shot: A subtle example when Carl Fogarty removes his sunglasses.
- Would Hurt a Child: A little girl gets shot by one of the crooks at the beginning. Given the consequences of violence in this film, it's a good thing the camera cuts away at that moment.
- Wire Fu: Averted. Joey is obviously extremely well-versed in hand to hand combat, but he sticks entirely to Boring, but Practical moves. They're very bloody practical. Cronenberg bloody practical.
- You Have Failed Me: Ritchie executes one of his wounded henchmen after failing to kill Joey, despite the henchman having a clear opportunity on an unaware opponent.Ritchie: How do you fuck that up? (kick) HOW DO YOU FUCK THAT UP!? (shoots henchman)