A History of Violence
“America was never innocent. We popped our cherry on the boat over and looked back with no regrets.”
— James Ellroy, American Tabloid
The foundation of David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence is trite, and the movie is built out of clichés. Given that, you might expect that people would be able to settle in for a comfortable time at the theater and give themselves over to the familiar formula of a decent if flawed man forced to resort to violence to protect himself and his family. But when we saw the movie recently, the small audience was tittering, laughing at odd moments and clearly baffled.
And with good reason. A History of Violence is a bizarre, challenging film dressed up as a mainstream entertainment, a subversive work bordering on parody yet also deadly earnest.
This movie confirms that Cronenberg, now in his 60s, has grown into one of cinema’s most sophisticated, rigorous, and probing filmmakers. Not content to tell a story well, the writer-director assembles his ridiculously compact movies with supreme care and curiosity. As his subject matter has become more conventional — as he has moved away from the ... err ... body issues that made his name — his conception, execution, and direction have become more experimental. His concerns these days are less speculative (than in, say, Videodrome), less metaphoric (than in The Fly), and less fantastic (than in Dead Ringers), and without his signature physical outgrowths of disease, death, decay, and mental illness, he has forced himself to deal with his material in radical but subtle ways.
A History of Violence is constant tension, a dense mass of oppositions, contradictions, and echoes in which nothing feels right and the pieces don’t quite fit together. It grafts graphic violence and gore onto what might as well be Hoosiers for all its earnest, cornpone bullshit, and features a central performance by Viggo Mortensen in which the character appears to be working really hard to remember whether he put on underwear, and then he erupts with lethal force. It invokes small-town innocence through hoary dialogue and warm, inviting light yet features a pair of sex scenes that sear themselves into memory, not for their eroticism or explicitness but for their expressiveness and clear dramatic importance. (And, apropos to nothing: Considering this and The Cooler, has Maria Bello no modesty?)
The movie is efficiently summarized in an exchange between Tom Stall (Mortensen) and his son Jack, shortly after the kid been suspended from school for pummeling a bully (whose hair, clothes, and mannerisms seem transported directly from a teen movie from the mid-’80s). “In this family, we don’t solve problems by hitting people,” the father says. “No, we shoot them,” the son retorts. Pop responds instinctively: Slap! It’s ironic, it’s obvious, it’s tired, and yet it’s also funny and distressing.
The bit works because small-town, awww-shucks Tom Stall has gotten himself in a spot. When the rural-Indiana diner he owns is held up, he — armed initially with only a coffee pot — kills the two bad guys with efficiency that’s downright frightening. His heroism makes national news and attracts the attention of disfigured Philadelphia gangster Carl Fogaty, who poses a simple question to Bello, playing Tom’s wife of at least 15 years: “How come he’s so good at killing people?” As you might expect, Tom has ... a history of violence ... that his spouse and two kids don’t know about. And Carl hasn’t come to the sticks to thank him for the impromptu cosmetic surgery he got many years ago.
The title, a plot summary, and the casually barbarous opening all suggest the movie is about violence, and that’s certainly how most critics have read it. How dull and pedestrian. What is there, really, to say about violence that dozens of movies haven’t said before? While violence is a major theme in the movie, it doesn’t come close to encompassing its complexity.
It makes more sense to interpret the movie broadly, to use violence as a starting point for discussion rather than an unquestionable statement of content and meaning. The title — as with Kieslowski’s similarly straightforward yet vague A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love — is a framing device, more to prompt and provoke than illuminate.
The movie’s violence is certainly not irrelevant, but it shouldn’t be taken too literally; it’s an extreme manifestation of a larger problem. The issue is not, after all, that Tom Stall might have been a vicious killer in a former life, but that his concealment seriously undermines his relationship (and credibility) with his family. The picture is fundamentally about reconciling perceptions of ourselves and of our loved ones with the realities of what we’ve done and what we do.
What emerges from the picture is that the view of the world expressed in A History of Violence’s pastoral early scenes is, if not exactly fantasy, a naive illusion. The wussy kid who’s put in right field in gym class won’t disarm the bully with bon mots. Parents married for more than a decade don’t do role-playing cheerleader-jock 69-ing. And there is no place inhabited only by friendly folk always looking out for their neighbors.
It’s not just that these ideals aren’t realistic in the present; they were never realistic. That’s why Tom’s violent past is in the past; it’s the curse of Cain. And that’s why the movie starts the way it does — with murder — showing that the soil has already absorbed its share of blood.
The veil of innocence — whether as a species, as a culture, as individuals, or as couples — gives way to experience, and we must learn how to live with our newfound knowledge. The second sex scene, on a wooden stairway, starts as a physical fight and segues uncertainly toward rough, urgent intimacy. Initially, it looks as if it might be a rape; throughout, it feels like a rape, even though both husband and wife are aggressors. As raw as the act is, it represents the beginning of reconciliation — not peace, but a submission to the reality that the ground on which the relationship was built has shifted dramatically, and a fumbling attempt to come to terms with it.
The movie ends on a delicately choreographed and performed scene around the dinner table, with ritual taking the place of difficult questions and pained words. Without histrionics, the closing offers a wealth of conflict and the seeds of possible but not guaranteed resolution.
The film, finally, doesn’t subscribe to this essay’s epigraph. Yes, America did lose its cherry a long time ago, as Tom and his wife do in A History of Violence. But they (and we) do look back, with regret.