While “A History of Violence” appears to be about a man attempting to fight against a violent past that both haunts and threatens his current sublime existence, it is actually the deepest philosophical meditation on human primal instinct ever created. The film begins with two parasitical individuals who kill without remorse or feeling before immediately transitioning to the everyday, Middle-American existence of Tom Stall (Viggo Mortenson), a married diner owner whose immense happiness, compassion, and charity mask a grave, unmatched capacity for sudden, unpredictable violence. The brilliant score by Howard Shore echoes these variations in tone with amazing authenticity, beginning with a soft, observant music before establishing a darker, more ominous sound as both the danger and violence continue to be more prevalent and pervasive.
All of the performances, including Oscar-level work by Ed Harris, William Hurt, and Maria Bello and a wonderful effort by Ashton Holmes, are tremendous in balancing the happiness exuded in small-town America that hides a massive capacity for both executing and applauding violence while avoiding the frightening realization of the consequences of this horrific action.
Viggo Mortenson gives one of the best performances of the decade as a man who is seen as a hero but may be a villain, an innocent victim who might also be a principal perpetrator. Mortenson is great because it reaches various levels and variations of the same person with both subtlety and savagery. Tom Stall is both a loving father with vast affection for his family and a vicious killer with no remorse for his actions. The fact that Mortenson boldly and clearly expresses these personae with only a slight change in his eyes and brief rise of his lips is nothing short of remarkable.
There is a graphic sex scene within the midst of the chaos of the story that exhibits more about the sadistic, hidden parts of the souls of the Mortenson and Bello characters that would be impossible to articulate through millions of lines of dialogue. This feeling is echoed by the foreboding score that eventually reaches a tone of revelation in which they both learn profound secrets about themselves that they are not necessarily joyful to discover.
The final, silent scene communicates an astonishing amount through glances about the universal truths of hope, understanding, and acceptance. This exposes the widely held belief that people do not continuously purge their primal instincts because of fundamental values, but rather so that the people they love can look at them with respect. Although Tom Stall may appear victorious at the end, his violent instincts will never be extinguished, making the entire journey a hollow, futile enterprise.
“A History of Violence” ranks above all the other thrillers of the decade because it investigates not only into the deeply guarded psyche of the characters within its world, but also because it connects to universal instincts, themes, and actions that are applicable to everyone. It intimately depicts the violent and primal instincts that have been submerged by evolution but still reside deep within our nature and can emerge at any time, no matter how much we try to hide them.
Maybe I am making the film sound too introspective and understated, even it possesses both of those qualities throughout. Let me make this clear. “A History of Violence” is an extraordinarily meaningful experience and is also one of the most riveting and spellbinding thrillers ever produced.