The film was in the main competition for the 2005 Palme d'Or. The film was put into limited release in the United States on September 23, 2005, and wide release on September 30, 2005.
William Hurt was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, while Josh Olson was nominated for Academy Award for Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay). The Los Angeles Times has called it the last major Hollywood film to be released on VHS. Mortensen himself praised it as "one of the best movies [he's] ever been in, if not the best", also declaring it was a "perfect film noir" or "close to perfect".
Tom Stall is a diner owner who lives in the small town of Millbrook, Indiana, with a loving wife Edie, teenage son Jack, and daughter Sarah. One night, two men attempt to rob the restaurant. When a waitress is threatened, Tom deftly kills both robbers with surprising skill and precision. He is hailed as a hero by his family and the townspeople, and the incident makes him a local celebrity. Tom is visited by scarred gangster Carl Fogarty, who alleges that Tom is actually a gangster named Joey Cusack who had dealings with him in the Irish Mob in Philadelphia. Tom vehemently denies this, but Fogarty remains persistent and begins to stalk the Stall family. Under pressure from Fogarty and his newfound fame, Tom's relationships with his family become strained.
Following an argument with his father over the use of violence on a bully at his school, Jack runs away. He is caught by Fogarty, who, with Jack as his hostage, goes with his men to the Stall house and demands that "Joey" return to Philadelphia with them. After the gangsters release Jack, Tom is slow to join them in their car, so they attempt to force him to cooperate. Tom kills the two henchmen with the same precision he used against the robbers, but Fogarty shoots Tom as Tom is aiming at him. As Fogarty is standing over Tom, preparing to kill him, Tom finally admits he is indeed Joey. However, before Fogarty can deliver a coup de grâce, Jack kills Fogarty with a shotgun.
At the hospital, Edie confronts Tom, claiming that while he was attacking Fogarty's men, she saw "the real Joey" that Fogarty was talking about. Tom shocks Edie by admitting that he is actually Joey Cusack, and that he has killed for both money and pleasure. He tells Edie that he ran away from Philadelphia to escape his violent criminal past. This admission deepens the tensions in their marriage.
After Tom gets out of the hospital, Sam, the local sheriff, pays a visit. Sam expresses confusion about everything that has happened. He tells Tom and Edie that these mobsters wouldn't go to all this trouble if they weren't sure they had the right man. Just when Tom is about to confess, Edie lies to Sam, claiming that Tom is who he says he is, that their family has suffered enough. At a loss for words after Edie breaks down into tears, Sam leaves. Edie and Tom then start slapping and hitting each other, their fight eventually culminating in violent hate sex on the stairs; this is in contrast to the tender and romantic sex they were shown having in the beginning of the film. Afterward, Edie and Jack continue to further distance themselves from Tom, leaving him isolated. He receives a call from his brother Richie Cusack, who also demands his return to Philadelphia, or else he will come to Indiana to find him. After traveling to meet his brother, Tom learns that the other mobsters whom he had offended in Philadelphia took out their frustrations on Richie, penalizing him financially and delaying his advancement in the organization. Tom offers to make peace, but Richie orders his men to kill his brother. Tom manages to kill most of the guards and escape. As Richie and his last henchman are hunting for him, Tom surprises and kills both of them.
Tom returns home, where the atmosphere is tense and silent as the family sits around the dinner table. The future of his marriage and his life as Tom Stall are uncertain, but Jack and Sarah indicate their acceptance of their father by setting a plate for him and passing him some food. The film ends as Edie looks up at Tom, leaving their future in question.Viggo Mortensen as Tom Stall / Joey CusackMaria Bello as Edie StallEd Harris as Carl FogartyWilliam Hurt as Richie CusackAshton Holmes as Jack StallPeter MacNeill as Sheriff Sam CarneyStephen McHattie as Leland JonesGreg Bryk as Billy OrserKyle Schmid as BobbySumela Kay as Judy DanversGerry Quigley as MickDeborah Drakeford as CharlotteHeidi Hayes as Sarah StallAidan Devine as Charles "Charlie" RoarkeBill McDonald as Frank MulliganMichelle McCree as Jenny WyethIan Matthews as RubenR. D. Reid as PatMorgan Kelly as Bobby's Buddy
Most of the film was shot in Millbrook, Ontario. The shopping centre scene was shot in Tottenham, Ontario and the climactic scene was shot at the historic Eaton Hall Mansion, located in King City, Ontario.
The U.S. and European versions differ on only two fight scenes: one where Tom breaks the nose of one of Fogarty's thugs and one where he stomps on the throat of one of Richie Cusack's thugs. Both scenes display more blood flowing or gushing out of the victims in the European version. In addition, a more pronounced bone-crushing sound effect is used when Tom stomps on the thug's throat.
A deleted scene, known as "Scene 44", features a dream sequence in the diner, where Fogarty tells Tom he will kill him and his family; to which Tom responds by shooting him with his shotgun at close range. He then approaches Fogarty's mangled body, which raises a gun and shoots him. In the DVD extras' on-set footage, Mortensen suggests Harris should pull the gun from his chest cavity. Cronenberg, while amused by the idea, rejects it for being too self-referential; he cites a sequence in his film Videodrome, in which a character pulls a handgun from a slit in his stomach.
The film's title plays on multiple levels of meaning. Film critic Roger Ebert stated that Cronenberg refers to 3 possibilities:
...(1) a suspect with a long history of violence; (2) the historical use of violence as a means of settling disputes, and (3) the innate violence of Darwinian evolution, in which better-adapted organisms replace those less able to cope. "I am a complete Darwinian," says Cronenberg, whose new film is in many ways about the survival of the fittest—at all costs.
A History of Violence premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2005, and was released in the United States on September 30 following a successful limited release on September 23, 2005. The film was released on DVD and VHS formats on March 14, 2006, and was reported as being the very last major Hollywood film to be released on VHS.
The film started with a limited release in 14 theaters and grossed $515,992 at the box office, averaging $36,856 per theater. A week later, it went on a wide release in 1,340 theaters and grossed $8,103,077 in its opening weekend. During its entire theatrical run, the film grossed $31,504,633 in the United States and $60,334,064 worldwide.
The film received widespread acclaim from critics. The review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes claims 87% of critics have given the film positive reviews (based on 207 reviews). On Metacritic, the film had an average score of 81 out of 100, based on 37 reviews. It was ranked the best film of 2005 in the Village Voice Film Poll. Empire named the film the 448th-greatest film of all time. The French film magazine Cahiers du cinéma ranked the film as 5th place in its list of best films of the decade 2000–2009.
Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers gave the film four stars, highlighting its "explosive power and subversive wit", and lauded David Cronenberg as a "world-class director, at the top of his startlingly creative form". Entertainment Weekly reviewer Lisa Schwarzbaum gave the film an A, concluding that "David Cronenberg's brilliant movie" was "without a doubt one of the very best of the year". Manohla Dargis of The New York Times called the film a "mindblower", and noted Cronenberg's "refusal to let us indulge in movie violence without paying a price". Roger Ebert also gave the film a very positive review, observing that "A History of Violence seems deceptively straightforward, coming from a director with Cronenberg's quirky complexity. But think again. This is not a movie about plot, but about character." He gave it 3 and a half stars (out of 4).
In his list of best films of the decade, Peter Travers named this #4, praising director David Cronenberg:
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 showed how we secretly crave what we publicly condemn. This is potent poison for a thriller, and unadulterated, unforgettable Cronenberg.
BBC film critic Mark Kermode named the film the best of 2005.
In 2016, the film was ranked among the 100 greatest films since 2000 in an international critics poll by 177 critics around the world.
In 2008, the American Film Institute nominated this film for its Top 10 Gangster Films list.
The soundtrack to A History of Violence was released on October 11, 2005.