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.
The 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)