A History of Violence

(Germany/USA - 2005)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, William Hurt, Ashton Holmes
Genre: Action/Crime/Drama/Thriller
Director: David Cronenberg
Screenplay: Josh Olson from John Wagner & Vince Locke's graphic novel
Cinematography: Peter Suschitzky
Composer: Howard Shore
Runtime: 96 minutes

Paul Verhoeven is a director who understands you can criticize the subject matter you are portraying by making it less than convincing. His most successful film in this regard, Starship Troopers, saw him cast bad actors, and coax even worse performances out of them than usual to send up the ideology the film was supposed to be promoting, and the buffoons perpetrating it. You walk a fine line when employing this technique because it’s basis creating an ironic distance that allows it to work against everything you seemingly support. Those who don’t understand that it’s awful by design will certainly get that it’s awful, and probably try to laugh it off the screen, creating a schism where the film is either considered a cult classic or one of the worst films of all time.

The key to A History of Violence is the fairly unique tone David Cronenberg has set for the film. Cronenberg hired very talented actors, who show many sides of their being, so his film isn’t nearly as likely to be seen as camp as Starship Troopers was in some quarters. However, in most of the memorable moments the performances purposely fail to be fully persuasive because the actors are portraying conflicted characters who behave as programmed, which usually means as they do in other action movies, which of course is simply a popular form of mass mimic inspiring manipulation. The characters repress their actual being, falling back on their role playing ability as a way to hide their true selves, or be more exciting by perpetuating a fantasy. This results in the actors playing key scenes as a mix of drama, satire, and theater, showing the audience they are less than satisfied with the authenticity of their own actions. The characters are torn between their mechanical response and they way they’d actually like to respond to the point they often no longer know what they believe. In the end, they either respond instinctually or in the manner they know will be deemed acceptable, which can be one in the same but tends not to be unless aggression is a possibility.

Much of the brilliance of A History of Violence stems from the fact Cronenberg makes the audience complicit in the violence by attaching us to it. He evokes every genre cliche in the book, but manages to create an unsettling tone that sometimes provokes disgust rather than the usual glee, but more often disgust at the usual glee. He’s removed all the black and white, all the knee jerk reactions, replacing them with the consequences. It’s not that Cronenberg is simply saying all you are used to is bad, that wouldn’t effect us in the least, but rather that he manages to walk the thin line between providing and dissuading to the point we are forced to make our own decisions because we can’t clearly say he’s for or against anything.

It’s easy to see how he fooled the studio heads into thinking he was simply serving up another action film, which it is, but it’s also an examination on the characters’ and more importantly audiences’ reactions to the material. Cronenberg proceeds with a skepticism that’s so rarely successful because it requires keeping the audience out, denying them their wishes. In absence of the real person, the audience is forced to project. We see the person we decide they are based largely on the person they want us to see, which is the primary reason it’s possible for Joey Cusack to become Tom Stall or Tom Stall to become Joey Cusack.

The characters in A History of Violence disturb Cronenberg’s morals, but are only tools for his true purpose, which is to instill that uneasiness in the viewers by forcing them to question their own reactions to the scenes. Cronenberg has long understood the more important relationship is not between him and his characters, but rather him and his audience. We can see from a film like M. Butterfly that where most directors would spend their time concerning themselves with perpetuating the mystery of whether Song Liling is a man or a woman, he knows later - more likely sooner - the audience will react based on the fact John Lone is playing the part. The film lies in our eventual knowledge that Jeremy Irons has fallen in love with a man, is kissing a man, and so on. Thus, while not neglecting to present Lone at his most feminine, his real concern isn’t costume design but rather that we see Lone as Irons does so we’ll react properly.

I don’t want to make it sound like David Cronenberg is the only director who knows what the audience will react to. Most high paid hacks know that; Brett Ratner might even figure it out soon if he ever gets beyond gazing at Jackie Chan struggle to make something out of nothing. The difference is the hacks set out to ensure the entire audience shares the same very specific emotional response, laughing, crying, or jeering on cue at the intended moment. By presenting cliche material in an awkward manner Cronenberg makes us reflect inward and provide a personal response, we interact rather than simply accept. Laughing, cheering, recoiling, or vomiting are appropriate responses to any number of scenes. The point is Cronenberg bucks the consensus response in favor of reflection. The film may move to fast to be a Meditation on Violence of the Maya Deren sort. It’s palette is the action film rather than the art film, even though it fairs quite well as both, but it’s one of the very few recent Hollywood films that warrants any afterthought and is capable of eliciting an enlightening group discussion.

Cronenberg has made a popular film as a way of dealing with what makes violence popular on screen, and more importantly prevalent in our culture. The fact A History of Violence is more mainstream than Cronenberg’s back to back masterpieces eXistenZ and Spider keeps the highly original personal director from making it a three-peat, but this isn’t a return to the genre works he made before leaving Hollywood, The Dead Zone and The Fly, as it continues his more recent preoccupation with the psychology of his main character(s). The master director once again reworks his classic theme of mind battling body, this time turning it into an internal struggle for identity.

*Spoilers regarding the identity of the main character*

Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) tries to obliterate his past to free himself from his history of violence. However, as successful as he’s been at destroying his being through repression, he still looks similar enough that he’s tracked down by mobster Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris), who outs him as former hit man Joey Cusack. Ironically, this occurs right after the mild mannered family man has been declared the greatest American hero of the day by the media, celebrating the very thing Tom has spent all these years attempting to subdue by lauding the “heroics” of his skillful double homicide because the victims happened to be robbing his restaurant. Tom doesn’t see anything extraordinary or praiseworthy about the events, but no one seems to care because they are too busy enjoying a rare bit of attention, and trying to figure out how to capitalize on it.

Tom learned violence from his older brother, it’s a celebrated way of life in the USA passed down from generation to generation, but Tom tries to escape this way of life, not realizing all the ways it’s sewn into the fabric of our comfortable existence. Learning from the personality and temperament his father has chosen to display, Tom’s son Jack Stall (Ashton Holmes) uses psychology and intellect to talk his way out of a fight, convincing the bullies an inferior person such as himself is completely unworthy of their effort.

Though the dichotomy lies specifically in Tom, many of the men in the film could just as easily be aggressive or passive. Cronenberg gives us interchangeable characters, showing how one can so easily become or be replaced by another. Tom can be an assassin one minute and scold his son for standing up for himself the next. Jack can be bullied or bully. The restaurant robbers are eliminated, but immediately replaced by tougher and more deadly gangsters led by Carl Fogarty.

The film isn’t so much about our need for a change in the peaceful direction or the fact everyone is effected by the violence because whether or not there’s a justification there’s always a cost. It’s about a character we never see portrayed as a hero, an unglamorous pacifist, unraveling before our eyes until he becomes the same character we’ve seen a million times, which is another cliche as we only see a character similar to Tom Stall in a film such as Straw Dogs where the wimp is eventually forced to fight. But Tom’s largely irrelevant, the question is whether this is what we want, and what that says about us.


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