Ryan talks with his dad, Tom Stall, about a fight at school he was involved in.
A History of Violence opens by presenting two very different looks at small town America. In the first scene we see two thugs, Leland Jones (Stephen McHattie) and William Orser (Greg Bryke), who are on the road hiding out from the law. Their boredom with their fate of having to stay away from any large city or town where they could be recognized, is usually relieved by some violent act. As we see them casually checking out from a run down motel, it is revealed that they have murdered the owners. When Orser goes back into the motel office to fill their water bottle, he reveals his sociopathic character by cold-bloodedly shooting the dazed five-year-old daughter of the motel owners when she wanders into the office looking for her parents. At this point there is a blackout and we hear a scream. The scream doesn’t come from that little girl but rather Sarah (Heidi Hayes), the five-year-old daughter in the Stall family, who has awakened in the night from a nightmare about monsters. Quickly her father Tom (Viggo Mortensen) appears at her side to comfort her, then her teenager brother Jack (Ashton Holmes), who suggests that she sleep with the light on because the monsters can only exist in shadows, and finally the mother Edie (Maria Bello) wondering what all the fuss was about. The scene continues the next morning, where at breakfast it is revealed that the Stalls are a normal and loving family in their small Indiana town. Sarah confides that “keeping the light on” worked for her, and she had a good night’s sleep. Jack talks about his day in school and uneasiness about a baseball game in PE class where he is put in right field because he is not a good baseball player. Tom advises him to not let any fly ball get past him, and he will have a better chance at catching or fielding it. Tom runs a small diner in town, but he is not getting rich through the business. Edie needs to give him a ride to work because his truck needs repair, and he must do the work himself. There is still a lot of spirit and fun in the relationship between Tom and Edie. That night, when she picks him up from work, she tells him that both of the children are elsewhere with planned activities, and now she wants to makeup for the fact that they didn’t know each other in high school. When they get home she dresses up in her old cheerleader outfit and seduces Tom.
Jack and his girl friend Judy share a joint in front of the town library.
The next day, big changes begin to happen to the Stall family. Jack turns out to be the unlikely hero of the squad baseball game in PE class, when, remembering his father’s advice, he stays behind the ball, and is able to catch a fly ball to right field for the final out hit by Bobby Jordan (Kyle Schmid), the posturing and arrogant star player of the other team. Bobby has been tormenting Jack all year, and he confronts Jack in the locker room, shoving him, and trying to start a fight. Jack refuses to take the bait, and behaves in such a submissive manner, that Bobby has no reason to fight, which of course angers him even more. Later that evening, Bobby and his friend are cruising the town where they see Jack and his girl friend Judy (Sumela Kay) in front of the library. Bobby vows that he will beat the crap out of Jack soon, but in another great scene change and juxtaposition, Leland and William, the two killers from the opening of the film, drive into town and nearly run into Bobby’s car. Bobby is all set to flip them off and start a confrontation, but one look at Leland and William makes him quickly change his mind and drive away. William is especially bored and wants release. At the same time Leland tells him that they are nearly out of money, but an easy solution is at hand. The two head to the Stall diner — Leland thinking of robbery and William thinking of rape — planning to commit mayhem and murder. Like Jack in the locker room scene, Tom tries to diffuse the situation, telling the two that they are closed, and have little money but they are welcome to it. When it is clear that a simple robbery is not what their intentions are, as William is already pawing over the waitress who was trying to leave, and Leland has drawn his gun, Tom responds in a way that reminds you of a karate movie. In swift and decisive moves, he smashes the coffee pot straight into Leland’s face, dives to the floor to retrieve his gun and shoot William. Meanwhile the injured Leland has retrieved a Bowie knife out a leg holster and stabs at Tom, but is only able to get to his foot before Tom finishes him off, saving the diner and all of its remaining customers and staff. Tom is immediately hailed as a hero, first by the local media, and then by the national media, although Tom does everything he can to keep his distance. The decisiveness of his actions and the fact that one of the “good guys” was able to take out two ruthless murderers is too good of a story to pass up, and we see a disgusted Tom in his hospital room (where his foot was treated) watch as the story is repeated endlessly on all of the news channels. The next day when Tom returns to work, the diner is crowded with customers. But besides the well-wishers, a black limousine pulls up to the diner and in comes Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris), a mobster from Philadelphia with a scarred face and two of his henchmen. Carl calls Tom “Joey Cusack” and wants to know when Joey will be coming back to Philadelphia to settle things. Tom denies everything and Carl is asked to leave. Eventually he does, but already he has brought up questions that begin to upset the Stall family. Maria is very concerned about the changes in Tom since the diner incident, and now this allegation that maybe Tom isn’t who he says he is. But with Tom continuing to deny that he is Joey, Edie, who is a lawyer in town, contacts the sheriff (Peter MacNeill) to check up on Fogarty. Over the next days, Fogarty continues to stalk the Stalls, following Edie and Sarah into a local shopping mall. When the sheriff reports back to Tom and Edie that Carl Fogarty and his companions are indeed Philadephia mobsters with long rap sheets, he also begins to question Tom’s story. Yet Edie still sticks up for Tom, even though she expresses her doubts and suspicions in private. At school, Jack has another run in with Bobby. While walking in the hall with Judy, Jack is pushed from behind into another student by Bobby, taunting him over the fact the his dad is supposed to be a hero yet he is such a wimp. This time, the restraint in Jack snaps, and with some eerie similarities to the diner scene, Jack quickly takes out Bobby and his friend in such decisive and brutal fashion that Bobby is sent to the hospital and Jack is suspended from school. When Tom tries to talk to Jack about what happened, it quickly leads to a rift between the two. Now the whole family is in crisis, threatened from the outside and wavering in their own trust for each other. The scene is set for remainder of the film. How these issues are resolved makes up the balance of the story.
Jack reflects on the threats he received from Bobby Jordan.
A History of Violence is one of the most interesting films to come out in 2005. The film functions at two levels — a character study of trust in a typical nuclear family paired together with escalating action and amazingly choreographed fight scenes as Tom Stall and then his family are threatened by a series of thugs and gangsters. Director David Cronenberg has stated that he is “a complete Darwinian,” and taken from that perspective, it is clear that one of the important themes of the film is the “survival of the fittest.” Both the male characters in the film seem on the surface to be nice guys that you would want to know, and unlikely to survive the attacks that they were exposed to. Tom Stall is the hardworking dad, scratching out a living and there for his family. Jack Stall is the intellectual son, just learning about life, and very uncertain about his future. Yet when the chips are down, both are able to respond in a way that is as ruthless and deadly as their adversaries could ever be. For Tom, this is something from his past that he has tried to suppress and hide from people. For Jack, the knowledge that he is capable of survival through violence is a major and disturbing revelation that he has a very hard time dealing with. For Edie, she is horrifed by what she sees and learns about Tom — all of her legal and marital sensibilities are upset — while at the same time his actions in defending himself and their family attracts her to him at a gut level. It is unfortunate that this film didn’t receive more recognition at the Academy Awards. Although William Hurt received a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his brief appearance toward the end of the film, the film was really carried by its principals, and the very effective screenplay. Probably what prevented it from receiving awards were all of the reasons listed for its R rating “strong brutal violence, graphic sexuality, nudity, language, and some drug use (Jack and Judy smoking a joint for about 20 seconds)”. While this list is all of the things that make it a great “guy movie”, it is clear that the film would not be appropriate for some people, which is why it only receives 3.5 chucks here instead of four. But if you can get past those things, you have to admire the outstanding performances throughout. Viggo Mortensen should get the part in a remake of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, as he is so convincing in this film as a cheerful small town nice guy that you actually believe he isn’t Joey at first. Then when the fight scenes occur, and they are impressive for their conciseness and brutality, you think he could become another action hero. It is nice to see a script for a woman lead, where her characterization goes beyond the nice and protective mom, and explores her fears, passions, sexuality, and willingness to fight for her beliefs. Maria Bello should have received a nomination for her work in this film, but 2005 had another agenda when it came to honoring performances with overt sexuality. Ashton Holmes is effective as the confused teenager, unsure of himself, very upset about the sudden changes in his life, and unable to comprehend what he learns about himself when the moments of truth arrive. While some of his reactions don’t always make sense, isn’t that often the case with teenagers just coming of age? A David Cronenberg film would not be complete without some despicable villains, and A History of Violence does not disappoint. Ed Harris and William Hurt both make you want to stay on the good side of the Philadelphia mob. It seems that lately Hollywood has developed a good sense for adapting graphic novels, with recent releases Sin City, Batman Begins, and V is for Vengeance coming to mind. It is not often that you get an action film that explores family values and is thought provoking. Do check it out.
Jack waits for his father, trying to gain some understanding about the changes in their lives.
While his friends look on, Bobby tries to provoke Jack into a fight.
Ashton Holmes, in his role as Jack, the Stall’s teenaged son, wears black high top chucks throughout A History of Violence. Chucks appear in the background on the shelf throughout the scene where Bobby bullies Jack in the locker room. The best scene has to be the fight scene between Jack and Bobby, where Jack gets his revenge. Very quick but a stunning fight scene. Moral: don’t pick on guys wearing chucks.
When Jack finally does fight Bobby, he swiftly and brutally takes him down.
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