Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is an average family man, happily married to the loving Edie (Maria Bello) and a father to the teenaged Jack (Ashton Holmes) and the young Sarah (Heidi Hayes). He lives a mild-mannered life in the small town of Millbrook, Indiana, where he works as a universally well-liked restaurant proprietor and is satisfied with his lot.
The humble existence of Tom's family comes crashing down one night when he kills two armed robbers who enter his diner and threaten him, his customers and his friends. The act wins him the admiration of the townsfolk and the press as an "American hero", but the widespread attention proves the last thing a simple man like Tom would ever want — for more reasons than the newfound celebrity status.
The coverage surrounding Tom ends up attracting attention from mysterious people who firmly believe that Tom is a man involved in their past that they're on less than good terms with. While this seemingly starts out as a case of mistaken identity, its progression not only puts the safety and relationships of Tom's family more at risk, but pushes them towards discoveries that will shake them to the core — and challenge everything they know about Tom.
Being a Cronenberg film, it's not for the squeamish, though it does feature a somewhat more grounded setting and less overtly bleak tone than most of his movies. The violence is also contained into several 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. He's actually something darker, since he used to be "Crazy Fuckin' Joey" Cusack. Tom using those skills is just remembering what he learned from his days as a killer.
- Adaptational Name Change:
- Joey Muni becomes Joey Cusack, and the McKennas become the Stalls.
- Richie Bandetto becomes Richie Cusack, and is Joey's brother.
- Tom/Joey's son Buzz becomes Jack.
- John Torino becomes Carl Fogarty.
- Sheriff Frank Carney has his first name changed to Sam.
- 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 Fogarty'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.
- Agony of the Feet: During their fight, Leland manages to blindside Tom with a knife through the top of his right foot. It doesn't do any good to him, but Tom spends rest of the film limping as a result of the still healing wound.
- 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.
- 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.
- Also, Leland and Billy. The two literally rob, rape and murder everyone they come across and generally act extremely hostile. The aftermath of the motel massacre in the beginning and their attempted robbery of Tom's diner perfectly encapsulates this, as they are both willing to go to such unnecessarily violent lengths to achieve their ends.
- Becoming the Mask: Tom/Joey appears not to recognize 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?!
- Big Damn Heroes: Deconstructed. Jack shooting Carl in the back with the family shotgun just as he's about to off Tom isn't portrayed as a badass moment, more as Jack going into complete fight-or-flight and functioning on mental autopilot, as he's in total shock after he pulls the trigger.
- Bittersweet Ending: All the mobsters are dead, but Tom/Joey has alienated his son and his wife in the process, possibly irreversibly. He also had to kill his own brother to put an end to all the madness. 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 of simple but brutally effective crippling strikes. He has a particular fondness for crushing windpipes.
- Chekhov's Gun: When Tom sees a suspicious car headed towards his home at work, he runs home and calls Edie to tell her to load their shotgun. While it ends up being a false alarm that triggered a post-traumatic response in Tom, he ends up taking the gun when Carl and his men arrive. While Carl forces him to drop it, Jack ends up using it to kill him as he's about to kill Tom.
- 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.
- Cornered Rattlesnake: Jack always attempts to Turn the Other Cheek and walk away from a few bullies, even after they keep egging him on to fight. When said bullies physically prevent Jack from leaving school, Jack snaps on them, sending both of them to the hospital with how ferociously he attacks them.
- Cruel and Unusual Death: Leland has a coffee pot half-full of boiling hot coffee broken over his head with shards of glasses cutting his face up badly before having Tom shoot him in the back of his head at point-blank range. This breaks his lower jaw in graphic detail, leaving him to twitch and drown in a pool of his own blood.
- Dark and Troubled Past: The crux of the movie is whether or not Tom has one. He does, and quite a dark one at that. Tom is "Crazy Fuckin' Joey" Cusack, a known killer. Tom was just trying to move past it.
- Deconstructor Fleet: The film basically takes all the typical action tropes and turns 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. Tom was in the diner that was being robbed, and defended himself. However, what Tom did to the robbers was so brutal that it greatly disturbs him.
- Double-Meaning Title: As theorized by Roger Ebert, the film's title refers to the literal history of violence Tom is revealed to have and the film's thematic focus on violence's use throughout history to settle disputes, reflected both through Tom and Jack. He also throws out the possibility of it alluding to the violence of Darwinian evolution, with the film very much being about the survival of the fittest; he even quotes Cronenberg calling himself a Darwinian.
- 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 Fogarty; 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.
- Fan Disservice: The second time Tom and Edie have sex. It's rough, violent, and seems to function as a purge of their negative emotions towards each other more than anything. The sex is also both preceded and followed by Tom forcefully chasing after and grabbing at Edie, who is very much trying to get away.
- Fanservice: The first time the two have sex, however, is intimate on both ends, topped off by Edie wearing a hot cheerleader costume for role-play complete with a famous Panty Shot.
- Foreshadowing: Many hints are dropped throughout the movie that Tom may be more than he seems. The big question then becomes whether he is what Carl Fogarty says he is. The diner scene in particular is rich with this.
- The diner scene obviously shows that Tom can be exceptionally brutal and efficient at killing people, (he even manages to disarm one of the robbers with just a coffee pot) but there are also more subtle clues at work, mostly by comparing Tom's reactions to everyone else in the diner. When the robbers first enter the diner, Tom reads them like an open book and tries to get rid of them non-violently by refusing to serve them coffee. When the robbers refuse to leave and first start acting upset, everyone else visibly has fearful or at least disturbed reactions; their hands shake, they freeze in place or startle, their voices quiver. Tom never changes the way he carries himself or his tone of voice, and a very quick shot of him pouring coffee for the robbers shows that his hand is perfectly steady.
- He then gives the waitress permission to leave as a gambit; if the robbers let her leave, theyre allowing a witness who can describe them to leave, and the smart decision in that case would be to abandon the robbery altogether or make sure nobody is hurt, so theyll be a low priority target for police. If they stop the waitress from leaving, (which they do) its a very strong sign that they are all in on the robbery and intend to violently silence the customers and staff. This further annoys the older robber because he realizes what Tom is doing and that Tom is not playing by their rules and trying to break them off of their usual routine.
- Tom doesn't even show any fear when the robbers pull out their pieces; instead, he is just calmly observing and looking for an opening to attack and for the robbers to lower their guard. Also, the fact that Tom even passes up one opportunity to start fighting back because he realizes the timing isn't right and the older robber isn't distracted enough shows how calculated he is in his actions, and that he is not acting on impulse or instinct. When Tom does disarm one of the robbers, he never lets go of the gun, not even due to the pain and surprise of being stabbed in the foot.
- Finally, there is a split-second moment of hesitation when Tom is about to gun down the older robber, realizing that the man is no longer much of a threat, yet he does it anyways. After the entire ordeal, Tom's facial expression indicates that something from his past awoke amidst the chaos but he is not entirely sure what.
- Afterwards, Tom doesn't express any signs of PTSD whatsoever despite being nearly killed and is back at work a few days later like nothing happened.
- When Tom is interviewed by a news reporter after the robbery he tries to downplay what he did, and is reluctant to talk about it. The reporter takes a moment to highlight that Tom went way beyond an average Joe in handling the robbers.
- Jack violently snaps when finally pushed too far by the bullies, hinting that the violent nature runs in Tom's bloodline, and that Jack is capable of more violence than one would ever think from looking at a skinny, dorky teen.
- Tom and Jack have an argument about the aforementioned fight in the school. When Jack mentions that in their family the problems are solved by shooting them, Tom snaps to the point he gives Jack a slap on the cheek.
- 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 bullies' balls as hard as he can, which instantly takes that bully out of the fight. A solid groin attack can be incapacitating, to the point that (as is later being discussed) the guy ended up needing hospitalization from how hard Jack kicked him.
- Gross-Up Close-Up: While the film's portrayal of violence is mostly quite realistic, Cronenberg shows a bit of his affinity for viscera through particularly excruciating close-ups on the bloodied, mangled faces of the victims. The highlight has to be Leland's lower jaw being completely destroyed after Tom shoots him in the head, with a massive exit wound out the side of his face.
- Hate Sink: Bobby stands out as the biggest Jerkass in a setting full of violent and ruthless mobsters despite being just a particularly vicious school bully for Jack. Bobby simply won't leave Jack alone, constantly egging him on to fight in spite of Jack trying to Turn the Other Cheek multiple times. That said, the movie does show the realistic consequences of Jack giving Bobby a No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: instant suspension from school and possible criminal charges.
- 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 to the face.
- Joey also was apparently quite good at using these, if Fogarty is to be believed; Joey once used barbed wire on Fogarty's face, which nearly took out Fogarty's eye. The reason that he was called "Crazy Fuckin' Joey" is because that he could use even the simplest of things in often brutal ways.
- 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. Interestingly enough, their conventions and traits tend to more closely resemble The Mafia, particularly in their use of made men (which do not exist in the Irish mob), and also in their extravagant lifestyle. Nevertheless, every gangster in the film has an Irish surname, ensuring that this trope is in effect.
- I Should Have Done This Years Ago:Tom: I should've killed you back in Philly.
Carl: Yea,h Joey... you should have.
- Jawbreaker: When Tom shoots the robber in the head, the bullet passes through his head 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 Bobby who torments Jack at school is a relatively straight example of this, though even his teammates think Bobby's taking it too far when Jack clearly has no interest in fighting him.
- 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.
- A Lighter Shade of Black: The mob is made of ruthless killers and Joey used to be an armed maniac at its employee, but they all look like saints when compared with the Serial Killers from the first act, going on a cross-country rampage for shit and giggles, rather than business or self-preservation.
- 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:
- If the robbers had only known how much Tom would fight back, 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.Sidekick Bully: Who the fuck was that?
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]
- 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.
- 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, blowing off part of the guy's jaw.
- 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: Double subverted. 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)
- Politically Incorrect Villain: Upon our introduction to Jack's bully, we learn that a repeated area of mockery is his lack of physique, with both him and one of his friends calling Jack a "faggot".
- Pragmatic Adaptation: The film is very different from the original comic. In the graphic novel, Tom McKenna is really Joey Muni, 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 the family of one of them 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?
- The Reveal: Given the premise, there has to be one, no?
- Rewatch Bonus: After first watching the film and getting an answer to whether Tom and Joey are the same person or not, rewatching the film gives a whole new perspective into what Tom was feeling and thinking at certain times, and certain ambiguous expressions or shots can be interpreted in very different ways than they were the first time around.
- Smug Snake: While starting to rob Tom's diner, Leland doesn't even move from his seat and simply smugly smiles to Tom, to show him how much he's in control. Right down to leaving it to Tom himself to announce that he's being robbed.
- 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.
- It's completely likely that he meant that it had been recently vacated, however.
- 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. 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.
- 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.
- Richie himself is also pretty 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.
- Villainous Lineage: The movie frequently toys with the question of whether violent behavior is inherited 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.
- 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 an 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 confesses that he used to be Joey, Edie responds by running into the bathroom and vomiting.
- Walking Spoiler: Knowing the answer to whether or not Tom is actually Joey is a huge spoiler and will change how you experience the movie. A lot of care went into editing this page to make sure that the revelation that Tom is actually Joey only appears in spoiler text.
- 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.
- 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)