A History of Violence is a taut, disturbing drama about one man’s past (or supposed past) tearing apart the fabric of his family, risking their safety and the safety of the small community in which they live. The story answers the “Is he or isn’t he?” question in a remarkably clear and satisfying fashion. This is filmmaker David Cronenberg (Dead Ringers) at his best.
A History of Violence is a hard story to pin down. I found myself rolling it around in my head for a while trying to figure out it’s storyform. The difficulty stems from the rich backstory the film offers. It took me some time to sort out how much of it was part of the storyform and how much was interesting but nonessential storytelling. After several unsuccessful attempts, I finally found a storyform that fits both the “feel” and “logic” of the story.
Tom Stall (MC) is a man with “a history of violence” (MC Concern of The Past), though at the time the story begins this is not known by his family or the small Indiana community in which he lives (MC Domain of Situation).
Two serial killers enter his small diner and threaten to kill its patrons (Story Driver of Action). While the patrons and employees stand frozen in fear, Tom throws hot coffee on one of the killers (OS Issue of Conditioning v. Instinct), grabs one of the guns, and kills both men (MC Approach of Do-er and MC Unique Ability of Interdiction). Against his wishes, he becomes a town hero and makes national news.
Tom sees all the hoopla as a serious problem for him (MC Symptom of Change) and wishes things to go back to normal (MC Response of Inertia). Unfortunately, the notoriety gets him recognized by Carl Fogarty, a made man from a Philadelphia crime family.
Fogarty, backed by henchmen, comes to town and confronts Tom saying Tom is really Joey Cusack from Phillie (MC Problem of Perception). Tom says there must be a misunderstanding (OS Concern of Understanding) but this doesn’t fly with Fogarty. Thus begins much speculation about Tom’s true identity and behavior (OS Problem of Speculation) that causes trouble for Tom in town, for his son at school, and even within the family. Tom’s wife, Edie, fiercely stands behind her man but is secretly unnerved by some of the things Fogarty says (IC Problem of Speculation).
The questions about Tom’s identity put a real strain on his marriage to Edie. He works to dismiss Edie’s concerns (RS Domain of Manipulation), but cracks in their relationship continue to grow.
When Fogarty grabs Tom’s son, Jack, and offers to let go if Tom returns to Phillie with Fogarty, all hell breaks lose. Tom kills all but Fogarty before he is shot in the shoulder. Jack kills Fogarty before Fogarty has a chance to kill his father (Story Driver of Action).
Edie is haunted after watching the massacre on her front lawn (IC Concern of Memories). Evidence against her husband is growing (IC Issue of Evidence v. Suspicion). She fights with Tom as things fall apart. “Who does this make me? Edie Stall or Edie Cusack? And your children?” (RS Issue of Sense of Self v. State of Being).
Eventually Tom is kidnapped and taken to Philadelphia where it is revealed that he really is Joey Cusack, brother of head mobster Richie Cusack. There we find out that Richie is the one with the contract out on Tom/Joey and has wanted his younger brother dead since Tom/Joey was an infant (Story Goal of Understanding). While a thug attempts to garrote him, Tom/Joey reverts to his killer instincts and manages to wipe out his brother and the other thugs. Tom/Joey washes himself off in his brother’s lake, forever ridding himself of “Joey.” (MC Resolve of Steadfast, Outcome of Success).
Tom returns home, unsure of his welcome. His family is seated at the dinner table. His wife sees him but does not invite him to the table (IC Resolve of Change), but his children set his place and offer him food after he sits. Tom is home, but his idyllic life is broken (Story Judgment of Bad).