Top 100 American Movie Quotes of the 21st Century: #65

The actor:Viggo Mortensen
The character:Tom Stall (OR IS HE)
The film:A History of Violence
The quote:“I should have killed you back in Philly.”

There aren’t that many shots like the one that David Cronenberg uses when Mortensen says this line. The camera is not quite directly overhead Mortensen while he’s on the ground. It looks like we’re standing over him, peering over him, which is exactly what Ed Harris is doing while he holds a gun over him. “I should have killed you back in Philly,” Mortensen says, his mouth barely even moving as he guts it out. It’s a profoundly intimate moment. Barry Lopez writes about the look between animals, the hunter and the hunted, before the prey becomes meal. That’s why the shot over Mortensen does so much for me. Intimacy without love or affection. Even the job history or personal backstory that Tom/Joey and Carl have with one another pales in comparison to the closeness of this moment. It is an evil intimacy, one of the rarest relationships that two people can have, and one that you’d better hope to God you never experience for yourself.

By now, long before now, we are supposed to have guessed that Tom Stall is Joey Cusack, a refugee from a life of especially violent crime. He predates John Wick, who, like Joey, is drawn back into pugilism by accident. (One of the several reasons why A History of Violence lingers so much more powerfully than John Wick is that the reactivation of John Wick sends fearful shockwaves through the crime syndicate, leading to the cinematic version of an inexorable speedrun to a final boss. The reactivation of Joey Cusack comes one kid from a shotgun away from getting Joey killed.) The idea of Joey Cusack postdates the idea of Jason Bourne in both source material and film debuts, though once again I prefer Cronenberg’s version of this type. Jason Bourne is transposed easily from his Cold War milieu to the time of the War on Terror. For all we know, Tom Stall goes to see the Hickory Huskers with the rest of the town and heads to the barbershop afterwards to damn Norman Dale. In this moment, Joey Cusack tears off his mask for good, a mask that by now is not really fooling anyone. More importantly, by admitting a past tense, Joey returns to the land of time, placing himself within a real moment for the first time in many years, visiting a future with the suddenness of H.G. Wells’s Time Traveler.

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