Crime Films: A Monthly Column
David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence pushes us to reexamine our attitudes toward violence. The film opens with a scene in which two ex-cons check out of a seedy motel by killing the desk clerk, maid, and the maid’s child. This scene is almost gratuitous in terms of plot–we don’t need it to follow the central story–but it is crucial to the movie’s message: Violence is ubiquitous, and we need to figure out how to relate to it.
A History of Violence centers around the character of Tom Stall (played by Viggo Mortensen), a peaceable and contented family man who runs a diner in a small Indiana town. When the two out-of-town ex-cons burst through the diner door, primed for robbery, rape, and murder, Tom’s lightening reactions leave them dead under the coffee-counter stools, and the media celebrate him as an “American hero.” But the publicity brings him to the attention of Philadelphia mobsters from his distant and secret past, when he was Joey Cusack, and it sets Tom-Joey on a path leading to a confrontation where his only possible response is to kill the mobsters, who include his own brother. Thus we have a man with two personalities, one hyperviolent, and the other pacific, who seems at first to have overcome his own history of violence but finds that he cannot in fact survive without it.
As the other characters become aware of Tom’s past, they have to reposition themselves in relation to him and to violence itself. Jack, Tom’s teenage son, has to come to terms with not only his dad’s history but also his own violence–both in a subplot in which he fights and vanquishes the high school bully, a figure similar to the ex-cons, and in the main plot, in which he shoots a vengeful gangster from his father’s past, thus saving Tom’s life. In both cases, Jack discovers that violence is necessary, helpful, and possibly cathartic. Edie, Tom’s wife, discovers her own interest in violence during a stairwell sex scene with the man she has discovered to be the ex-gangster Joey, a far more brutal lover than the gentle Tom. Similarly, the re-emergence of his past forces Tom himself to stop fleeing violence and come to terms with it.
Cronenberg, in director’s comments on the DVD release, observes that most of the world’s people experience a good deal of violence: “The truth is that violence as a way of life is pretty common on earth right now.” Cronenberg has been gleefully rubbing viewers’ noses in guts and gore for years. But in this film, he pushes us further, forcing us into the point-of-view of the main characters so that we, too, need to figure out how to reorient ourselves to Joey and all that he stands for. The violence is pleasurable because the bad guys are blown away; but Cronenberg insists that if we’re going to enjoy the violence, then we have to accept its consequences in the form of Joey. We can’t retreat into the mythology of safe small-town America, as Joey tried to when he assumed his Tom identity, because that is exactly where the Stalls are living when the ex-cons’ intrusion into the diner rips the myth apart.
In A History of Violence, Cronenberg insists that we learn to live with violence–and it is hard to argue when we are in fact mesmerized by this violent movie, with its graphic special effects such as a nose that dissolves into a bloody pulp when punched and a jaw that liquefies when shot. At the very least, Cronenberg suggests, forget the piety of anti-violence rhetoric. Like Tom and his son Jack, we can’t always avoid violence, and like Edie, we may learn to savor aspects of it. Moreover–a point the movie makes time and again–the way we relate to violence fundamentally shapes our identities.
What does the title The History of Violence mean? It refers on one level to Tom’s history –to the Joey character he has to stop denying and reintegrate into himself. More broadly, it refers to the human condition–we have a history of violence; apparently we cannot live without violence; and so instead of mouthing horrified platitudes we need to rethink our identities as–occasionally–very violent creatures.
Nicole Rafter is the author of Shots in the Mirror: Crime Films and Society, a sociocultural study of the crime film genre. She is currently a professor at Northeastern University in the Law, Policy, and Society program. Her column is published on the 4th Tuesday of every month. Check out past columns on Sex Crime Movies, Inside Man and Miami Vice and her intro.