David Cronenberg: A History of Violence

I walked out of A History of Violence a little confused. Was that a Cronenbergian take on a straightforward ‘family under siege from baddies’ drama, or something very different? Maybe it was both. If any other director had gotten their hands on it, it might have been something like Goodfellas meets Die Hard meets some anodyne Costner shlockfest. Let us be thankful for David Cronenberg.

The farther I got from the cinema, the more I realised that the director had packed layer up on layer of subtle subtext and manipulation into his movie. Which isn’t to say it’s didactic in any way.
A History of Violence starts with a couple of psychopathic killers doing their daily chores – murdering people. We’re shocked by their violence, and I’m reminded of the ‘Collectors (Serial Killers) Convention’ in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. As A History of Violence is based on a graphic novel, this maybe something of a homage… These men are like some kind of demons running amok. We’re already unnerved by their breaking of taboos.
Cut to Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen)… decent, good god-fearing middle-American family man, who runs a stereotypical diner in small-town Indiana. He has the perfect wife, Edie. (Maria Bello) and two kids, a teenage son (bullied at school, but smart enough to talk his way out of trouble) and almost annoyingly cute little daughter. This is the kind of town were the jocks wear football jackets and drive hotrods, the lone cop is nearing retiring age and wears a straw cowboy hat. You get the picture… there’s even a sexy scene with Tom and Edie acting out a fantasy of the teenage years they never shared.
Enter the itinerant psychos – are they here to rob Tom’s diner, or just create there create havoc, maybe make some money along the way? Mild-mannered Stall reacts, and swings the potential of the situation in favour of the townspeople. The killers are dispatched in a bloody and spectular fashion – Tom’s ‘only’ wound is a dagger through the foot. He becomes a national hero, and ends up all over the media.
history_violence2.jpgThe next day, the family try to return to normality – despite the diner filled with adoring fans. Men in dark suits appear, and make themselves at home. Tom offers them coffee on the house… they accept, then one of the, Fogarty (Ed Harris) starts referring to Tom as Joey, and talking about ‘Philly’. Tom says he’s never been to Philadelphia. Fogarty removes his shades, and accuses Tom of causing his loss of eye and the terrible scaring on his face – with barbed wire.
From here on, the facade begins to crumble. The local cop and Tom’s wife start having doubts about his past. The family structure – the Stalls, and the family structure of Millbrook, Indiana, is put under strain. Is Tom part of a more nefarious family – the mob? Are the good Tom Stall and the evil Joey Cusack the same person, or two people occupying the same flesh? Dr Jeykll, and Mr Hyde…
I won’t give any more away, it’s too good to spoil. This movie is about family – the family we’re born into, the families we join, the family we create. It’s about how no matter how much evil members of a family carry out upon each other, they are forever family. It’s about the kitsch utopia of western civilisation, and the myth that we are somehow a peaceful tribe. Does violence bind the family, or tear it apart?
It’s about the enemy within, and the siege mentality of gun-toting small town America, scared of the world outside. It’s about the beast within us all.
The nature of the violence in this film comes from the nature of the characters – who they are, what they are, and why violence is part of their lives. In other words, I haven’t imposed some abstract concept or theory of violence on the story from the outside. The result is a depiction of violence that is very humanely physical – no explosions, no car crashes – very intimate, nasty, brutish and quick.
– David Cronenberg
By the end of A History of Violence, when Tom/Joey encounters his brother, Richie (camped up to the hilt by William Hurt) we’re actually laughing at the violence. Cronenberg is playing with us, showing how easily we are manipulated by the media and movies. Ninety minutes earlier we were appalled by far worse acts.
Now we’re laughing.
IMDB: A History of Violence »
Official website for A History of Violence »
I’ve wanted to. I’m not actually a violent person but I had to learn to kill with my bare hands to make this movie [A History of Violence ]. So I could now kill a critic, any critic, in seconds. It’d be so fast people wouldn’t know why he dropped to the ground. And I’m tempted to sometimes.
From a David Cronenberg interview in Toro Magazine »
[Hurt’s] presence provides the movie with an uproarious finale – which, however, might not be enough to satisfy some people, inside and outside the director’s fanbase, who will complain Cronenberg has allowed himself to be washed into the commercial mainstream. This isn’t true. He has dammed and diverted the mainstream and made it work for him.
The Guardian: A History of Violence
The Guardian:Cronenberg Quiz
Old interview with Cronenberg and William S. Burroughs: Which Is the Fly and Which Is the Human?
A History of Violence » – the graphic novel by John Wagner(amazon.com)
A History of Violence » – the graphic novel by John Wagner (amazon.co.uk)

Chief Bottle Washer at Blather
Writer, photographer, environmental campaigner and "known troublemaker" Dave Walsh is the founder of Blather.net, described both as "possibly the most arrogant and depraved website to be found either side of the majestic Shannon River", and "the nicest website circulating in Ireland". Half Irishman, half-bicycle. He lives in southern Irish city of Barcelona.


  1. But whars the value? Theatric images of violence
    get tucked away in your brain after watching this. What good does that do you?

  2. thought it was a great film: really enjoyed it. haven’t dissected it much, but feel if I sat down to think over it fully, i would still come to the same conclusions. Identity, family, violence: these ‘things’ were questioned and silkily interwoven within the rest of the film deftly, for me.
    I feel differently about violence being depicted to Jim above. Violence is inside all of us and demands exploration and anlaysis, in my opinion. I think film is an excellent medium for doing this. Im not keen on gratuitous violence, but this film certainly doesn’t provide that.

  3. I definitely enjoyed the hell out of this movie but about halfway through I really found myself wondering exactly why. I’m still not really sure, maybe all those video games and movies are finally taking their toll.
    Mostly what I enjoy in any story (movie, book or otherwise) is character development and there was definitely a good bit of that in A History of Violence. I’d advise people to see it but its definitely not for everyone.

  4. As posted elsewhere on blather.net:
    “I noticed that in your contribution “David Cronenberg: A History of Violence” you say that small-town Americans are “scared of the world outside”. Yet in Ireland, “not particularly”. It’s more of the same old automatic putdown of Americans. It has more to do with your imagination, or with your perceived need to follow a certain formula when writing anything at all about America, than with the objective reality of life in small towns in the U.S. Why do you assume that Americans are more “scared of the world outside” than anybody else? If this were true, why do you find more expatriate Americans living all over the world than expats from any other country? No matter what the objective reality may be, for non-American writers of course the U.S. is always due the obligatory little insult. It’s tiresome and inaccurate.”
    – Fitzie
    My reply:
    Fitzie – I’m not sure why you’re posting comments about this Cronenberg article on an article about environmental issues in Ireland – you can also post comments to the Cronenberg article. So excuse me if I misunderstood your earlier comment. There’s hundreds of articles on blather.net, so I couldn’t only assume you were talking about the one you posted to!
    But back to Cronenberg and small town America. I wrote a movie review that talked about the message that Cronenberg conveys in the History of Violence is. I’ve never spent anytime in small-town America, but I’ve spent plenty of time in small-town Lots of Places, especially Ireland, but also in other countries. Isolated towns to tend to be insular and suspicious of outside influences. Where I come from, it’s so small there isn’t even a town. Or a village.
    In my review of Croneberg’s movie, I didn’t talk about other countries – because it wasn’t relevant. I didn’t write the review to please anyone, or to wreak havoc with anyone’s sensitivies.
    But I’m sorry I might have offended you. On the other hand, I do find it remarkable that people can take reasonable commentary as being ‘unamerican’ – last year I wrote a piece about the surreality of LAX airport, and got slammed because it was intepreted as dissing America!
    People are just too sensitive…

Comments are closed.