A History of Violence

dir: David Cronenberg
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Two men casually prepare to leave a fleabag motel in the morning. They are unhurried, a little drowsy, probably thinking about the long drive ahead. We don’t sense that there’s anything wrong until everything is so wrong that even I was surprised by their brutality.

In the next scene, a father comforts his daughter, who’s had nightmares about monsters in her closet. He keeps telling her repeatedly that monsters don’t exist, despite our recent evidence to the contrary. It is so overplayed that you know it’s not meant to just be foreshadowing. It’s meant to be Ironic.

There are monsters out there, but they’re not always the ones we expect them to be.

David Cronenberg, Canadian auteur and primary exponent of the ‘body horror’ genre, makes films too infrequently for my liking. All of his films, including the ones that don’t entirely work, are worth watching, His weakest films are better and more interesting than the best work most other directors are capable of.

Here he’s gone with the premise that seems like the most simple, or the ‘straightest’ of the films throughout his career. The complexity could be solely what we are projecting onto the screen, because the film lends itself to multiple interpretations and subtexts. But I think it’s a credit to his work that it can go in so many directions with such a solid yet familiar concept.

It’s Smalltown, USA. A peaceful place with quiet, decent people. Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is one of these quiet, decent people. He runs a diner in this town, pays his taxes, loves his wife and kids, and is lucky enough to have his attractive wife (Maria Bello) dress up in her cheerleader outfit and perform 69ers on him.

The two sociopathic criminals from the film’s opening sequence appear at Tom’s diner, and you can guess that they aim to misbehave. Tom, seemingly out of nowhere, commits extreme acts of violence to protect himself and the other people in the diner. Through this, according to a tv journalist who keeps repeating the phrase ad nauseam, Tom has transformed into an “American Hero”.

Defending your business, home and hearth, defending your family from the evil forces out there, whether they be villainous criminals, communists or Mexicans, should make you a hero, goddamn it. The community is abuzz, Tom’s family is amazed but gladdened that he’s okay, and people are coming from miles around to get a piece of Tom.

In some cases, literally. Some new, creepy looking guys led by Philadelphia gangster Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) turn up in town, convinced that they know Tom, having rediscovered him through his current tv notoriety. But they don’t know him as Tom. They’re convinced he’s some guy called Joey with a tremendous history of violence.

The title of the flick, for those as slow as I, since it took me a few days after watching it to realise this, is a reference to what law enforcement officers say about a suspect they believe is responsible for a crime: that they have a history of violence. Tom doesn’t have a history of violence. But some other people do.

The concept of the history of violence, for someone like Cronenberg to investigate, is fascinating, especially when you stop looking at the mechanics of the film’s plot as being the crucial element here. Violence is an amazing, consuming, incredible part of human history. It’s not only criminals and film characters who have a history of violence; it’s the whole human race. Our species has achieved some of its most defining moments through the destruction of other members of our own species. Forget all that crap about survival of the fittest in the jungle, look at the way humans celebrate the survival of the nastiest.

And with it comes this taint. Violence infects, distorts, poisons everything and everyone it touches. There is no redemption, no act of contrition, no action that can undo its effects and heal people completely, regardless of its heroic or evil applications.

Tom has a lot of problems ahead of him now. Regardless of whether it was ‘right’ for those initial crims to die (most audiences would scream Yes!), it’s not like anyone’s life just goes back to whatever passes for normal after something like that. These strangers at the edge of town threaten his family and the security he has earned through both his quiet, hard-working life and through his supreme acts of violence in defence of same.

But now he is a man who has killed, who has taken lives. How does that impact on his intelligent but shy son Jack (Ashton Holmes), who’s already having troubles at school with bullies? How do you tell your son that violence isn’t the solution to conflict when you’ve blown two people away in a brutally efficient manner that a Victorian cop hopped up on goofballs would envy?

His wife Edie, as well, starts to look at him with different eyes now, unsure of the man she has shared most of her adult life with. How well does she really know him, since there are aspects to his character she never could have guessed?

There are positive ways (intellectually) to interpret the material here, as well as a lot of negative ways. I’m sure some people might take the view that this flick is little different from any other white, middle-class vigilante dirge where a man is justified in butchering any number of people because his family and property values are threatened by the evil underclasses. Where we’re supposed to feel glee as each sub-human is terminated, or pump our fists in the air and chant “USA! USA! USA!”

It’s not the same thing. There is more going on here, despite the direction in which the plot goes in the last third of the film. It is one thing to be uninterested in the flick. It’s another thing entirely to make the mistake of misunderstanding Cronenberg’s intent or intelligence. Nothing is done accidentally or because it’s an easy out.

Cronenberg makes complex films, he always has and presumably always will until he has a massive stroke and becomes a Hollywood director. He has much to say, some of it sly, some of it perverse, but lots to represent all the same.

The performances are pretty decent. Viggo in particular has a great, great scene during which he undergoes a complete transformation in between taking a few steps towards another character. That character keeps asking Tom to come closer, and Tom does. At least it looks like Tom for the first couple of steps. But he looks substantially different a step or two later. It sounds simple, but it’s very well done.

Maria Bello continues to play interesting characters and play them well. As the wife here she had the opportunity to fuck it up by overplaying it, but she keeps the character believable and real. She also has no problems with difficult sex scenes. The counterpoint of the initial playful sex scene and the one later on in the film represent the difficult dynamic the film tries to explore between husband and wife.

Again, it’s not about what’s shown, but what it can mean that’s the head-scratcher. I don’t mean that scenes are deliberately ambiguous (except for the last one) or obscure, but the possible interpretations can go in multiple directions, and they’re not mutually exclusive paths either.

Cronenberg achieves the right balance, tone and pacing for the material. Scenes are given a chance to breath, to linger and fester. For a film with such a title, the actual scenes of violence are few and far between. But when they come around, goddamn are they brutal.

I tried to talk my partner into coming along and watching the flick with me, telling her, despite the flick’s title, it wouldn’t be too violent, and that it wasn’t an action film, being more of a drama. I was only right about the second part, because Cronenberg levers in his particular love of the human body destroyed and distorted; a common theme throughout his work. The perversity of his thoughts and the outrageousness of his fetish for the ookiness of the human body are set aside for a higher purpose, but it always lingers around the edges of anything he does.

Truth be told, my partner would have wanted to walk out with the first representation of the murder of an absolute innocent, which, though off-screen, is nonetheless horrific and calculated for visceral impact. So even though there’s a lot of cerebral material here, it should not be seen as a cold exercise. Cronenberg does like involving his audiences on the visceral level as well as the intellectual. Call it his trademark, but it’s the strongest factor in his best and least successful work. Here, it’s a decent balance between the two.

It’s not just the body and the myriad ways in which it can be destroyed that motivates him here. It is the mind, a person’s identity, and what changes they can undergo in the presence of the magic of violence, which warps the DNA and passes down through the generations. Look at it as a critique, a comment but hardly a lament of American society, of any country that seeks poor justification for the violence it visits upon others. Or don’t. It’s no skin off my mugwump if you don’t like it.

A tremendous flick by my standards.

8 times I’d have preferred to let bygones be bygones rather than try to change the mistakes of the past if I’d been a certain character in this flick out of 10

“In this family, we do not solve problems by hitting people.” Tom Stall, A History of Violence.