The Curmudgeon


Saturday, October 08, 2005

A History of Violence

David Cronenberg 2005

The opening titles of A History of Violence appear over two men leaving a motel. They stow their bags and complain about the heat. The older one goes back inside for something. When he comes out his companion says "What took you so long?" and he says he had some trouble with the maid. As they're about to set off, they discover they are low on drinking water. With a sigh, the younger man goes into the motel to fetch some from the cooler, and the camera follows him. The motel contains two dead bodies and a great deal of blood. As the young man fills the water bottle, a witness interrupts him.

On the revolver shot that follows, Cronenberg cuts to a little girl sitting up in bed, screaming from a nightmare about monsters in the wardrobe. Her father, mother and elder brother all come in by turns to assure her that there are no such things as monsters, and even if there are you can scare them away by keeping the night-light on. Cronenberg, who spent his early career subverting clichés about horror-film monsters, in this film brings the same unsettling touch to the clichés of the small-town mystery, the repentant-killer thriller, the father-and-son melodrama, and the gangster film.

Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife Edie (Maria Bello) live with their two children in an idyllic Indiana small town. Everybody knows everybody; people greet each other by first name on the street and depart with "See you in church". Tom and Edie hang their coats on hooks with a carved T and E above them. There is no malicious gossip, no religious or racial bigotry, no casual day-by-day meanness; at least, none is visible. Perhaps it's just because this is a Cronenberg film, but Stall's surroundings seem a bit too good to be true; a dream of a small town rather than a real one. A violent young man's dream of peace, possibly.

At one point, after a touching recreation of the teenage sex life they never had a chance to share, Edie tells Tom "You're still the best man I've ever known." This judgement seems eminently correct when the two violent unpleasantnesses from the prologue turn up in Tom's diner. Seeing that they are about to rape and murder his staff, Tom clouts one with a boiling coffee-pot, gets his gun away from him, and shoots them both dead, despite being stabbed through the foot in the process. Much against his will, he becomes a local hero, and his face goes all over the television news.

His example also causes some small trouble at home: his gentle son Jack (Ashton Holmes) has been having trouble with a bully. He has managed to avoid disaster so far by turning the harassment into a joke, but when cornered in a corridor Jack lashes out and puts the bully in the hospital. The subsequent argument between Jack and Tom gives us another creatively warped cliché: when Jack protests that violence is, after all, the only language some people understand, Tom lectures him: "Listen, smart mouth. In this family we don't settle things by hitting people." Jack retorts "no, in this family we shoot people", whereupon Tom settles the issue by hitting him.

Trouble continues with the appearance of Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) and his two thugs. Fogarty is a Philadelphia gangster with a dead eye amid a mass of scar tissue in about the same place where Tom scalded the man with the coffee-pot. Fogarty claims that Tom is Joey Cusack from Philly, causing the sheriff to ask Tom if he's on some sort of witness protection scheme. Tom denies knowing anything about Fogarty or Cusack, but Fogarty persists, showing up at the mall where Edie has taken their daughter and telling her to ask her husband where he learned to kill people so effectively. The final shootout with Fogarty and his goons brings violence right to the heart of Tom's family.

The period between this episode and Tom's confrontation with middle-rank gang boss Richie (William Hurt) is the part of the film that bears the Cronenberg signature in its most distinctive form. Tom is twice asked for the truth about himself - once by his wife and once by the sheriff - and on both occasions he says "Truth?" as if genuinely puzzled by the word. He tells Edie that he killed Joey Cusack - "I spent three years becoming Tom Stall" - calling into question not only his own identity, but those of his wife and children as well. "What about our name? What's Stall?" she asks him. "It was available," he says. Although Edie later tells the sheriff that Tom "is who he says he is, and that's all that matters," she is clearly far less sure that he is the best man she's ever met. When Tom thanks her, she erupts in renewed fury and resentment - "Fuck you, Joey" - leading to a sex scene which is the polar opposite of the playful fantasy of a nonexistent past early in the film. It seems that the present was the fantasy, and the past - real and ugly - is all too genuinely a part of it.

Cronenberg has always taken a refreshingly agnostic view of such generally unappreciated protagonists as madness, disease and malfunction, and his attitude to violence is similarly free of moralising. Violence is ugly, horrible and harmful, and it solves problems. Tom is never portrayed as a liar, a hypocrite, or a man playing a part; both Stall and Joey Cusack are perfectly real. Nor does Cronenberg sidestep the problem by making A History of Violence a Jekyll and Hyde rerun and giving one of them victory over the other, as virtually any other film-maker would feel bound to do.

Those of Cronenberg's films which do not end with the death of the protagonist usually end with a question mark - fanatics Jude Law and Jennifer Jason Leigh staring at each other in eXistenZ with "Wha'?" plastered hilariously across their faces; or, on a very different level, Peter Weller in Naked Lunch, trying to cope with the discovery that his writer's creativity is inescapably linked to the violent death of his wife. The ending of A History of Violence, after a gangland confrontation even more stylised and fantastic than the down-home idyll at the beginning (a middle-aged diner owner's fantasy of violence, possibly), is one of Cronenberg's greatest uncertainties. There are monsters, and the light does not frighten them; your husband, your father, is not what you thought he was. You are not what you believed yourself to be.


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