Even if we inveterate cinéastes shun all interpretative methods in favor of pure enjoyment, we still have our expectations. We know what happens to people who claim on the phone to know a secret that they can only discuss in private; we know what lovers forbidden to see one another by class, race, family or religion will choose to do with their fates; and we know what eventually happens to the gun we see in the first act hanging innocuously on the wall. Cinema, more than literature, grooms our expectations by playing with what we know about human tendencies and what we yearn for in artistic expression. In books, a character may dream or rant in the most abstract of colors and shapes, and a talented author will make us dream or rant along with him. In film, however, we are invariably subjected to the ineluctable modality of whatever stage set the director has selected (or whatever computerized mirages corral our imagination, although those films are generally of lesser quality). So even if we do recognize all the actors in the trailer, what is shown of the characters' personalities in the trailer should be a minute sliver of what is revealed in the film. We may pique ourselves on our ability to glean the alpha and omega of what will happen from a two-minute foretaste – but that just makes a complete reversal of expectation all the more appealing. It also brings us to this fine film.
The stage is Millbrook, Indiana, which might not exist under precisely that appellation but exists under thousands of others. Millbrook and its working-class name embody the prototypical small town, the last bastion of purity in an urbanized world given to decay, dissolute whims, and Darwinian struggle. Towns such as Millbrook need humble venues where everyone can make sure that nothing has changed, or if something has, that everyone knows about it. One such nexus is a harmless diner run by a mild-mannered man named Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen). Tom has a loving and attractive wife, Edie (Maria Bello), an intelligent teenage son, Jack (Ashton Holmes), and Sarah, a young daughter in blonde curls. Edie's work as attorney relieves Tom of having to beef up the diner's clientele, a near-impossibility given the town's size and Tom's curious lack of ambition. Indeed, Edie's attraction to a man who was allegedly raised in Seattle by adoptive parents and has gone essentially nowhere in life tips us off that matters may not be what they seem. That and one notable incident: two hoodlums, arguably a father-and-son duo, truck into town and decide to make the diner their latest example of bloodthirsty mayhem. Talking to each other before they enter, and in a horrific scene at the film's beginning, they appear to be financially motivated. But the evil they display suggests otherwise, and there is no small gleam in their eyes when they hold up the diner (to no one's protests; small-town pacifism must be maintained) and threaten to kill one of the customers for no reason whatsoever. That is, until Tom springs into action and shoots them both as any trained soldier might. Except that, to the best of anyone's knowledge, he has had no such training.
Tom quickly becomes a hero and his face reluctantly makes every local news program and paper in the greater Millbrook area and, as we will soon find out, beyond. How on earth did he pull it off? "Anyone would have done the same thing," he mumbles as he walks by a disappointed journalist, who knows that is precisely what no one else would have done. On the heels of Tom's fifteen minutes of heroism, three men in expensive suits pull up to the diner in one of those large, dark, American cars produced in small towns but never driven in them. They hail from Philadelphia and are fronted by a nasty piece of work named Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris). Fogarty and his goons obviously care little for the rule of law, which would explain why they do not hesitate to tell their server that while his legal name might indeed be Tom Stall, he was born Joey Cusack. After this new name seems to punctuate every one of Fogarty's statements, Tom corrects him, as does Edie. Chuckling smugly, Fogarty then removes his sunglasses to unveil a scar we would not wish on our worst enemy, the handiwork of barbed wire and, well, Joey. The visitors leave only to shadow the family until Jack runs into a bit of trouble in school. After having fended off bullies with his wits for so long, he beats the onions out of them in front of a hallway of awed coevals. Suspended for this act of violence, a lack of self-control that appalls Tom, Jack shows neither pride nor remorse: what he did was just ("the best thing that could ever happen to those two"). Yet Tom sees the matter differently, and every inch of his face seems to cry out "How could my son do this?" Then Fogarty and company show up on the Stalls' front lawn with Jack in hand and we learn more about what Tom can and cannot do.
There is a third act, and it involves Joey's brother Richie (a Donegaled William Hurt), a dyed-in-the-wool Mafioso who has the mansion and armed detail to prove it. My strict policy of non-disclosure prevents me from talking at length, but a few sidelights prior to this encounter are worth mentioning. Lesser films would have the local sheriff gunned down in the middle of the deserted country road on which he pulls over Fogarty's Lincoln towncar; instead, the sheriff is allowed to have the last word ("this is a nice town with nice people; we take care of our people here") and walk away righteously. When Edie begins to have her doubts about Tom, she asks him whether he used to kill for pleasure or money, a question to which no answer is ever provided. Nor do we ever know what other impressionable teenagers ever thought of Jack's outburst or whether they chalked it up to his family's tendency to rage when cornered since, after the fight scene, Jack is never again shown in school – almost as if he has now become a man. But before the fantastic final scene when Tom returns home to a wordless dinner with his stunned family (any other film would have saturated the moment with histrionics), there is the matter of Richie. Joey and Richie, the names of two little boys who obviously mean no harm. Joey and Richie greet each other in a way that is so unusual they must be related, because they forget that anyone else could be watching. When Richie boasts of having decided Joey's fate, he means exactly the opposite of what he says, and Joey understands the charade but disagrees with the method. Yet what really sets A History of Violence apart is its refusal to condone, glamorize, or celebrate the criminal life. Criminality is merely treated the way it should be, as an irrevocable pact with dark forces. Once certain facts seem to implicate Tom his family does not defend him or love him any more, because who they loved never really existed. So if you believe the accusations that Tom used to be Joey and Joey used to kill people, and that Joey killed himself and became Tom, the logic becomes devastating. Never once do we really feel bad for Tom, because in truth, we shouldn't. He may have chosen one path and then another, but in the end he has had one soul and one life, regardless of who he thinks he is. "When you dream, are you still Joey?" asks Richie, who already has his answer. But we don't need to see Tom's dreams to have ours.