Pretty Good with the Killing

Hey, broheim… you’re still pretty good with the killing. That’s exciting.

That’s the voice of William Hurt on the phone with his estranged brother Tom, formerly Joey, in David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (2005). The film’s mainly interested in the brother (Viggo Mortensen), a reformed killer with a cute family and a thriving diner. But to our benefit, Hurt gets to loom over the film’s final act, delivering one of the most refreshing one-scene performances in recent memory as jocular mafioso Richie Cusack.

The distressingly casual phone call excerpted above (which ends with Richie’s ominous “You gonna come see me? Or do I have to come see you?”) is Hurt’s introduction to the film. His brother’s new life has just been upended twice in succession—first by a pair of itinerant criminals (including Pontypool’s wonderfully grizzled Stephen McHattie), then by the nosy, one-eyed Carl Fogarty (a scene-stealing Ed Harris) and his posse. Tom/Joey has been forced to kill them all.

Fogarty’s slaying prompts Richie’s late-night phone call. Cronenberg brilliantly shoots the scene as visually sparse, showing nothing but the half-asleep (and upside down) Mortensen cloaked in darkness. This lets Hurt’s smooth, expressive voice dominate even with only two short lines. It’s a chilling call, and it sets the stage for the brothers’ subsequent conference in Philadelphia, as they prepare to wrap up all of the film’s bloodshed.

There, Richie sits Tom/Joey down in his office, and Hurt’s voice really goes to work. He moves from nostalgia to indignation, pausing to mug in disbelief when he mentions how Joey cut out Fogarty’s eye with barb wire. He rationally explains why Tom has to die, haranguing him for past sins which are finally catching up to him. It’s a concentrated dose of great acting, as if to make up for the brevity of Hurt’s appearance.

Thanks to William Hurt, the ending of A History of Violence is unforgettable, and the word “broheim” will always sound menacing.

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