Cinema is often used to expose and explore underlying concerns and tensions within a given society. European films are notorious for their frank handling of the cultural impact of sexual identification and infidelity, while American cinema revels in the dissection of themes of violence and how violence effects our society. Movies like Shane and Straw Dogs explore violence as a rite of passage that must necessarily precede manhood. Stone and Tarantino have dismantled violence through postmodernism, building on and then burlesquing the mystique of violence that has been erected through a century of American cinema.
A History of Violence is David Cronenberg's most recent film, and it is a fascinating exercise, his most thought-provoking work since Dead Ringers. Cronenberg, like David Lynch, is a director who is frequently too smart for his audience and is well aware of it. Although the film is based on a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke, A History of Violence is clearly branded with Cronenberg's subversive sense of style, and as a director, he shapes an interesting story into something even deeper and more relevant than it was in its original incarnation.
It is established from the opening moments of the film that Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is a very happy, very content family man. Tom's young daughter has a nightmare and within moments Tom, his wife Edie (Maria Bello), and teenage son Jack (Ashton Holmes) have all gathered in the child's bedroom, where they chortle about the absurdity of monsters and glow in each other's love. There is an oral sex scene between Tom and his wife that is fairly graphic, yet the tone transcends the material, and the scene is rendered tame by its tenderness. Tom seems almost blissful managing the town diner; he is an affable and shy man who is content with his life.
The only real note of discontent comes when a bully picks on Jack at school. It is clear that Jack is reluctant to fight; he is a boy who will avoid violence at all costs. Things look dire for Jack before he manages to quip his way out of the situation, invoking the chuckles of his classmates. It is obvious that he has learned from his father about the devastating impact of violence, and how best to avoid it.
Cronenberg is an old-school director, languorous and precise, and he loves to heighten the mood of his films by leaving baggy silences hanging in the air between sentences. Those moviegoers accustomed to the hyperactive tenacity of recent films like The Island may struggle with Cronenberg's somber touch, particularly in these early scenes, before the bloody and gripping third act. Like Clint Eastwood, Cronenberg is a director of thought rather than action.
Tom is working late one night, closing up his diner, when two dangerous-looking men come in, demanding coffee. Tom gently implores the men to leave, but they are aggressive, obviously looking for trouble. Tom tries to send his waitress home, but the men refuse to let her leave, locking up the diner. Tom tries to give them the money from the cash register, but the men aren't interested. Just when things are about to go horribly, horribly wrong, Tom thwarts the evil intentions of these men through an act of extreme violence.
Labeled a local hero following this heinous night, things begin to slowly change for Tom. Jack, still bullied at school, decides that the time has come to fight back, much to Tom's chagrin. Three men dressed in suits come into the diner one night and one of the men (Ed Harris) begins to harass Tom, calling him Joey and insisting that he's seen him before. It turns out that these men saw Tom on the news and have mistaken him for someone else. As the harassment escalates, Tom is forced to make decisions that question the very essence of what makes a man.
This film seems to suggest that there are only two types of men: those who are willing to commit acts of violence if necessary, and those who are not. Once violence is used to solve a problem, even one time, it becomes far too easy to use violence as a tool in the future. A similar theme is explored in Paul Schrader's Affliction, but Cronenberg really nails it home with A History of Violence.
The performances are uniformly solid. Mortensen initially repeats his performance from the Psycho remake, all whispers and gentle concern, but as the film progresses his character arcs impressively. His scenes with William Hurt crackle with tension and bizarre character nuance. Mario Bello is good, particularly in a rough and tumble sex scene later in the film that is particularly fascinating when juxtaposed with the innocence that pervaded their encounter earlier in the film.
It's true that A History of Violence is a somewhat precocious title; yet, it's also extremely relevant. Once attuned to the power of violence, men can postpone the inevitable, but the desire to force an issue through the means of physical brutality will always linger. The film's thesis is conveyed with a fair amount of brilliance; I found myself dwelling on the characters long after I saw the film.
Over the past few years, violence has become more and more of a facet of life in America, and you can't truly understand the fears and desires of a society until you understand it's cinema. A History of Violence taps into our collective desire to be peaceful and civilized, and shows us the self-perpetuating nature of violence once it is used as a means to an end. As a director who always has something to say, even if it is sometimes buried in abstract psychological themes and symbolic gore, Cronenberg has expressed some important thoughts with his latest film, and expressed them well.