Viggo Mortensen plays Tom Stall, an ordinary family man in smalltown Indiana who owns the local diner. One night, when a couple of bad guys try to rob the place, Tom swiftly and effortlessly dispatches them. Instantly he becomes a local hero, attracting the attention of the TV news - and, eventually, a trio of villains (led by a wonderfully thuggish Ed Harris) from Philadelphia who insist that Tom is actually Joey Cusack, one of their own, a cold-blooded killer for the mob.
Although I won't reveal the truth, I am happy to report that this question of whether they have the wrong man or if Tom is hiding a terrible secret from his family doesn't take the film's full 96 minutes to resolve. But as another reviewer has pointed out, whether Tom is really Joey is a moot point, since his initial act of violence towards the two robbers has made him a killer by any name. I'll take that theory even further and claim that there is no moral to the story or reason to decipher Tom's character; both are simply in service to the film's theme. And every bit of this film is about one thing and one thing only: the visceral joy of violence, the thrill of hurting the bad guy.
Cronenberg makes the audience complicit in this as well, not in a lunk-headed way like Oliver Stone did with Natural Born Killers, but by simply staging each act of violence as exciting, cool, and well-deserved. Some people are going to get the wrong message out of this, but this isn't Tarantino we're talking about - Cronenberg is a serious filmmaker whose fascination with flesh and blood runs deep in all his work.
A History of Violence is based on a graphic novel (which I haven't read), but it's hard not to grant the story's authorship to the director. This is a David Cronenberg film through and through - smart, well-acted, and definitely suspenseful. My only quibble is that they didn't get the TV news coverage right: there's only one reporter camped outside Tom's house when he comes home after his heroic act? Come on!