Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, William Hurt
Director: David Cronenberg
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: New Line Cinema
Features: See Review
Length: 96 Minutes
Release Date: March 14, 2006


Film ****

In a career that has spanned more than 25 years, filmmaker David Cronenberg has made a name for himself as a director who dares to push the envelope in terms of subject matter that strike an easy nerve in the audience. Early in his career, he mainly specialized in experimental horror films such as Scanners and Videodrome, and lately his films have veered more into the depiction of bizarre human behavior, as in the case of Crash, Spider and eXistenZ. And now Cronenberg has delivered what can easily be considered his true cinematic masterpiece, A History of Violence, an adaptation of the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke.

It is considered Cronenberg’s most mainstream endeavor yet, more so than even his 1986 remake of The Fly. At the same time, it contains many themes that Cronenberg is right at home with and longtime fans of his are going to be more than satisfied with the results. The level of violence and gore is extreme in true Cronenberg style, but this story contains more layers than any other film he’s ever done, making this a pure treat for his devoted fans.

The film opens with one of the more brutal scenes in recent memory in terms of plot and character revelation. Two men are about to leave a motel. It seems like an ordinary action; one of them pays the bill and tells the other to fetch some water from the lobby. As we follow him into the lobby, we see that the motel clerk and maid have both been brutally killed, by the hands of the other man. But that’s nothing compared to the final action in the scene.

Cronenberg then switches gears for the moment, as we are placed in the sweet natured and sunny small town of Millbrook, Indiana, the kind of town you’d most likely see in a Frank Capra movie. Everybody knows everybody and they take care of their own. Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is a prime example of such a citizen. He owns a local diner and is admired by everyone in town.

Tom’s also got another thing going for him; his wife and kids. He is the ultimate family man and his marriage could never be better. The sex ain’t so bad, either, as Tom and wife Edie (Maria Bello) find time to fool around and play kinky games, including one where she dresses up as a cheerleader. By this point, the movie is on such a happy note that we have almost forgotten about the horrific opening.

But it comes back to our mind soon, as the same two men from the opening end up at Tom’s diner one evening just as they are closing. The two demand an order of coffee, and then threaten to rob the diner in addition to other unimaginable acts. But Tom reacts by gunning down the two men in the blink of an eye. In the aftermath, he is instantly labeled the town hero.

Tom, feeling as though he did what anyone else would’ve done, wants to ignore the media hype and just return to his normal life. That all changes once a group of men, dressed in dark suits, enter his diner and order coffee. One of the men, named Fogarty (Ed Harris), believes Tom to be hiding a secret, one that is directly linked to events in the past; in particular Fogarty’s scarred face and right glass eye. Tom insists he’s not the man they say he is, but the mysterious men, from Philadelphia, are ruthlessly persistent as they begin to taunt him and his family.

Edie stands by her man’s word, but a sudden encounter with Fogarty while shopping begins to change all that. He tells her straight up that Tom is not the man he claims to be and he asks her to simply consider the question, “How come he’s so good at killing people?” By this point, she starts to question the man she thought she knew so well.

As much as I would love to go into further detail about the story, it wouldn’t be right of me too. There are far too many intense moments and surprises along the way with too good of an effect to be ruined through revelation in a review. A good many reviews have pretty much already revealed the details I’ve kept secret about, which is fine but since I wish our readers a more enriching film experience, I’ve avoided mentioning them. All I’ll say is that the end result is mind blowing.

But I will elaborate on the performances, which are all explosive. Viggo Mortensen, simply known to many as Aragorn from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, delivers his best performance yet as Tom. He brings an incredible balance of cool and menacing. Maria Bello is fantastic as always as the growingly suspicious wife, and Ed Harris offers a chilling presence that is undeniable.

And then there is William Hurt, who with a screen time of nearly ten minutes comes close to walking away with the entire movie. To mention his character would mean I’d have to spoil certain details, but with this role Hurt reveals a side of himself I never knew existed. His dialogue is the most priceless of any character in the film. His Oscar nomination was extremely well deserved.

A History of Violence was yet another film that was largely ignored at the recent Oscars. It did garner two awards; Supporting Actor for William Hurt and Best Adapted Screenplay. I think it merited nominations for Best Picture, certainly Best Director for Cronenberg, Best Score for Howard Shore, and cinematography.

Maybe the film was too extreme for such consideration, but two things are quite clear; this was one of 2005’s truly best films and is David Cronenberg’s crowning achievement.

Video ****

This transfer from New Line is nothing but remarkable. The picture quality is of the utmost clarity and sharpness. It allows for many of Cronenberg’s distinctive angle shots to resonate quite powerfully. Colors are masterfully handled, in addition. Overall, a top notch presentation loaded with amazing detail.

Audio ****

The 5.1 mix delivers with a powerful bang! There are actually many quite moments in the film, with only dialogue to spare. But when the sequences of hardcore violence come into play, along with Howard Shore’s intense score to go along with it, watch out! The effect is nothing short of astonishing.

Features ****

New Line fulfills their Platinum Series promise with a superb array of features, making this perhaps the best DVD of any Cronenberg movie outside of Criterion. Included is a commentary track with Mr. Cronenberg, a fascinating documentary titled “Acts of Violence”, which covers nearly the entire making of the movie. Also featured are three featurettes, “Violence’s History: United States Version vs. International Version”, “Too Commercial for Cannes” and “The Unmasking of Scene 44”. Included as well is a deleted scene with optional commentary and trailers.


A History of Violence is a nerve-shredding masterpiece from David Cronenberg. The blending of the director’s trademark extreme brutality with the story’s many underlying themes adds up to a picture of uncompromising brilliance. Truly, a film not to be missed!

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