A History of Violence

DISTRIB/RELEASE DATE: New Line, Sept. 23

CATEGORY: adapted, from the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke

STORYLINE: Small-town family man Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) becomes a media hero after he kills two robbers in his diner, saving his customers. But then Fogarty (Ed Harris) arrives, insisting Tom is really Joey Cusack, a gangster who owes a blood debt in Philadelphia. The struggle between Tom and the mobsters — and ultimately between Tom and Joey — shatters Tom’s idyllic life.

ABOUT THE SCRIPT: Screenwriter Josh Olson started with the graphic novel, but kept little more than the premise of a small-town man accused of being an ex-mobster. “What interested me is the question of identity,” says Olson. Tom absolutely is the man he claims to be when Fogarty arrives, but is forced to become a man he’d hoped he’d buried. “All of us create who we are over the years,” Olson says. “Everybody tells lies to the people around them and themselves about who they are. You have to get through the day. What happens when all that is stripped away?”

BIGGEST CHALLENGE: “Turning a straightforward thriller into a twisting and turning psychological piece,” says Olson. “There’s so much that’s left off the page in this script. It was always nerve-wracking writing it. With some filmmakers, just a tweak here or there could turn it into a straightforward action film. If people weren’t reading it carefully, getting what’s not on the page, that could happen.”

BREAKTHROUGH IDEA: The source material reveals from the start the truth about Tom and Joey. Olson chose to hold on to the mystery of Tom’s past much longer, then explore the psychological impact of Tom’s revelations on the family. “What happens to the wife when she finds out her husband’s been lying to her for 20 years?” he says. “What happens when a kid is raised to be nonviolent and finds out his father’s done these awful things?” The answers play out, among other ways, in two very revealing sex scenes.

FAVORITE SCENE: In film’s final moments, Tom returns home to his family after facing his past one final time. Life will never be as innocent as it was, but their eyes offer Tom a glimmer of hope. “I like movies that don’t tie everything up for you, that allow you to draw conclusions based on your experience,” Olson says. And the entire scene plays without a word of dialogue. “I think dialogue is great; I worship at the altar of dialogue,” he says, “but you have to know when not to use it.”

CHOICE LINES: Tom’s wife, Edie, on learning he really is Joey Cusack: “And our name, my name, Jack’s name, Sarah’s name. Stall, Tom Stall. You just made it up? Where did that name come from?” Tom: “It was … available.”

WRITER’S BIO: After working below the line, Olson wrote and directed “Housesitters,” a series of comedy shorts. That led to low-budget horror feature “Infested,” which he also wrote and helmed. He sold his spec “Three Gun Blues” to Paramount and is writing a Western for Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson plus a horror pic for New Line.

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