Joey Cusack was the nastiest guy in Philadelphia’s Irish mob. He killed dozens, sometimes without the go-ahead from his bosses. Had a real vicious side. Carved up a made man with barbed wire once, scraping out his eye.
And then, he wanted out. But you can’t opt out of the mob. So Joey Cusack disappeared. Walked into the desert and emerged three years later as a whole new man. Literally.
That’s the setup for this fine movie. But the story, of course, is that you can never escape your past. History always catches up—specifically, in this case, a history of violence.
Early in the movie, you get no hints that actor Viggo Mortensen’s character was once that brutal mobster. Instead, he is the ultimate Middle American—mild Tom Stall who runs a friendly diner in small-town Indiana. He ties on an apron each morning, serves up pie and smiles at customers’ stories. At home, there’s pretty wife Edie (Mario Bello), an angst-filled teenaged son and an adorable six-year-old daughter. One night, he comforts the girl after a nightmare, telling her, “There’s no such thing as monsters.”
But, of course, there is. A pair of evil killers have already wandered into this Norman Rockwell painting. They reappear one evening to terrorize Tom’s diner. Tom is initially passive, directing them to the cash register. But when one of the bad guys threatens his waitress, Tom snaps into ferocity. He tosses a hot coffee pot at the first man, grabs his gun and blows away both thugs, while sustaining just a stab in the foot. And Tom Stall becomes the kind of local hero adored by the 11 o’clock news.
He’s a reluctant idol, however. Tom wants nothing to do with the people carrying cameras or notepads. Back at the diner, when a packed house applauds his vigilantism, he dismisses it with an “aw shucks.” Even at home, where his family craves details, he says, “Aren’t you as sick of hearing about me as I am?”
By now, the world has heard of him—including the guys he left behind 20 years ago.
Limousines arrive at the diner one morning, carrying menacing strangers from Philadelphia in sunglasses and black suits. They seem to know Tom—they keep calling him Joey—and they’re downright intimidating. Their leader, Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris), carries a gruesome scar on his face and suggests that our small-town superman was the cause of it long ago.
Tom denies it all. Just mistaken identity, he insists, as the men in black dog him and his family around town. Eventually, however, it becomes clear—in a bloody showdown with more shock value than the diner murders—that Tom Stall and Joey Cusack are one and the same.
Without giving away too much of the movie, let’s just say that the illusion becomes impossible to sustain and Tom/Joey must return to Philadelphia to make things right. There, he confronts his mob-boss brother Richie, played by William Hurt, who’s apparently attempting to parody every bad gangster performance ever. More about that later.
The plotline of a mob guy trying to get out is not unique. We’ve seen it in movies from On the Waterfront to Sexy Beast to Road to Perdition. But A History of Violence is different in that we revisit the criminal two decades later, long after he figured he had put his old life in the rearview mirror. He is so far removed from it that he is asked, at one point, whether when he dreams
he thinks of himself as Joey Cusack or Tom Stall. He’s not sure of the answer.
There’s another interesting angle in the movie examining what happens to a family when it finds out that dad used to work as a hit man. For Edie—terrifically played by Bello—the transformation is bracketed by two terrific sex scenes between husband and wife, the second suggesting that she is both repulsed and turned on by the discovery.
Meanwhile, Tom’s son Jack (Ashton Holmes) has it no easier, being cruelly picked on at school. He tries disarming the menace with humor and self-deprecation. But when pushed too far, he batters the bully with a shocking brutality that suggests the history of violence has been implanted in his gene pool.
Director David Cronenberg (Eastern Promises, The Fly) does a strong job with this Jekyll and Hyde story, although at times the bloodshed becomes more cartoonish than realistic. That may stem from the story’s roots—a popular graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke.
CASTING CALL: Harrison Ford turned down the chance to play Tom Stall.
HIT: Cronenberg resists the temptation to turn the Stalls into the Waltons here. It would have been too easy to make everything sunny in Indiana until the scary truth emerges. Instead, life is more mundane than idyllic—right down to breakfast coming out of a cereal box.
“I didn’t want to go overboard with the sunniness of it all,” Cronenberg told Salon.com. “The scene in the kitchen, in the beginning, is not flooded with yellow light. It’s warmish, but not warm. . . . There are things that are not so nice and not so stable, lurking under the surface.”
This is a normal family with normal family joys and anxieties—well, at least at first.
MISS: William Hurt is a talented actor with an Academy Award on his mantel and, in fact, received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his work in this movie. We don’t get it. Man, does he chew up—and spit out—the scenery. Hurt plays the head of Philadelphia’s Irish mob, using an inflection that sounds more Brooklyn than Broad Street. Hurt said he studied the accent listening to members of Maria Bello’s family, who live in the Philadelphia suburb of Norristown. We’ll take him at his word, but he sure sounds like a Big Apple drunk trying to imitate Rocky Balboa.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Cronenberg changed the Italian-sounding surnames in the original script to Irish names. According to the DVD’s audio commentary, he did not want the audience to anticipate Tom’s past mob ties early in the film. And he said neither Mortensen nor Hurt seemed able to play convincing Italian-Americans.
“I KNOW THAT GUY”: Stephen McHattie—the older of the traveling killers who meet their end in the diner—is recognizable for his roles as Hollis Mason, the wise Nite Owl in Watchmen, and as the Grand Inquisitor in The Fountain. But if you want to see him in a great movie, check out The Rocket: The Legend of Rocket Richard, a little-known biopic about the French-Canadian hockey great. McHattie plays Montreal Canadiens coach Dick Irvin.
GOOF: Check out the Canadian speed limit sign as Tom drives from Indiana to Philadelphia. That’s one circuitous route. (The “Philadelphia” scenes were all shot near Toronto, by the way.)
BEST LINE: Angry teenager Jack Stall to his dad, after learning of his true past: “If I rob Mulligan’s Pharmacy, are you going to ground me if I don’t give you a piece of the action? If I go to Sam [the sheriff] about you, will you have me whacked?”
PIVOTAL SCENE: After Tom refuses to voluntarily return to Philadelphia, Fogarty and his men decide to get tough. They kidnap his son, and—showing him to Tom—say they will exchange him in return for Tom’s cooperation.
“Don’t make us hurt the kid,” Fogarty says, as one of his men holds a gun to Jack in front of Tom’s house. “We just want you to take a trip down Memory Lane. Come with us.”
Tom agrees, and his son is released to run inside the house. Alone, facing three enemies, Tom shows no fear—in fact, he starts to morph into the mobster he was years ago. You see it in Mortensen’s face—his mouth hardens, his eyes sharpen. Suddenly, he’s Joey Cusack again. It’s a terrific moment of acting.
“It will be better if you just leave now,” he warns Fogarty in a dead, flat voice. His body clenches.
Fogarty chuckles at the advice. And then. . . .
Well, you’ll have to watch the movie.
VIOLENCE LEVEL: Very high, as you would figure from the title. It’s actually even higher in the European version of the film, which provides more gushing blood and louder bone-crunching effects during two beat-down sequences.
BODY COUNT: Thirteen—ten from gunshots, three from some impressive martial arts moves.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “Is Canadian director David Cronenberg the most unsung maverick artist in movies? Bet on it. Cronenberg knows violence is wired into our DNA. His film shows how we secretly crave what we publicly condemn. This is potent poison for a thriller, and unadulterated, unforgettable Cronenberg.”—Peter Travers, Rolling Stone
(Note: Travers named A History of Violence the fourth-best film made between 2000–09.)
REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: Worth viewing about once a year to see Mortensen’s transformation, the high-quality violence sequences and—we’ll admit it—Bello’s nude scenes.
IF YOU LIKED THIS, YOU’LL LIKE: Boy A, a 2007 indie film about a 24-year-old who is released from prison for a murder he committed as a child. He tries to establish himself in a new life, but people he befriends learn his terrible secret and he cannot escape his past.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]
George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and author of several books, including “Blood and Honor” which Jimmy Breslin called “the best gangster book ever written.”
Glen Macnow was a writer for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and “Detroit Free Press.” He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia.
George and Glen have co-authored “The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies.”