Cult Classic: A History of Violence
A dizzyingly explosive and brutal watch, A History of Violence was criminally underwatched at its time of release yet thankfully it has became a cult classic in the passing years.
Danish actor Viggo Mortensen freely admits that after his iconic role as Aragorn in the epic Lord of the Rings trilogy, Hollywood had a new path ready for him to take. Mortensen would become an A-list action star, beloved by men and lusted after by women.
Thankfully - obscure 2004 horse-related action film Hidalgo aside – Mortensen forged a different path alongside revered director David Cronenberg, with whom he collaborated on for Eastern Promises and alongside Michael Fassbender for the Keira Knightly spankathon that was A Dangerous Method. For our money though, the duo’s high point thus far has been A History of Violence.
Loosely adapted from a graphic novel of the same name, A History of Violence is a meditation on the power of violence, its effectiveness in historically settling disputes and how long-buried violence can alter family relationships. More than that, however, it’s an extraordinarily potent watch, with sharp unexpected flourishes of combat that will leave you gasping.
The film has an intriguing central mystery concerning our protagonist Tom Stall (Mortensen), a mild-mannered coffee shop owner in a small Indiana town. With little time to act one night as two robbers enter his store, Tom expertly kills both and becomes a local hero in the press, with his face making the provincial newspapers.
A few days later, a mysterious scarred visitor shows up in an expensive vehicle, with henchmen in tow. His name is Carl Fogarty but he thinks Tom’s name is Joey and keeps referring to him as such, much to the irritation of Tom’s wife. However, as Carl points out before leaving a tip: “Ask him how come he's so good at killing people.” The man has a point…
If you’ve never seen A History of Violence then we won’t go into spoiler territory regarding the increasingly demanding methods Carl uses to grab Tom’s attention but suffice to say that as evident from the incredible opening scene, our protagonist is indeed pretty good at killing people, while Cronenberg is the ideal director to shoot violence that is realistic, bone-crunching and causes uncomfortable reactions among audiences. This is no Michael Bay-style evangelising of combat – every blow hurts.
The legacy of A History of Violence is admittedly an odd one. For one thing, the film was the last major Hollywood release to hit the VHS format, so we’re sure there’s quite a few fans out there sitting on a potential eBay goldmine.
Another obscure little factoid regarding the film is that despite being on-screen for less than ten minutes in just one scene, William Hurt’s performance as a mob boss in the third act was deemed worthy of an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. That sounds ridiculous but watch his role for yourself (there’s probably enough space to watch the whole thing as a YouTube video on a mini lunch break) and trust us, you’ll want to watch every single William Hurt movie ever made.
There’s so much more than can be said about A History of Violence – from its shocking and downright painful midway point sex scene (on the wooden stairs, really?) to the haunting sense of foreboding that follows every interaction between Tom’s son and the preppy school bully – yet it demands to be viewed and debated afterwards as a collective whole.
There quite simply hasn’t been a movie like A History of Violence in the seven years since it was first released and for that reason alone, newcomers should track it down and find out what they were missing. Preferably not on VHS though – we’d imagine that would cost a fortune.
For more cult films, check out the Jameson Cult Film Club.