A History of Violence
2005Director: David Cronenberg
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, William Hurt
avid Cronenberg is still in the business of unnerving. Ask his devotees where A History of Violence falls within his grim corpus—The Fly, Crash, Scanners, Dead Ringers, Videodrome, Naked Lunch—and they will likely pair it with The Dead Zone. In each film Cronenberg wades into studio waters, dips south of the Canadian border, and places his faith in naturalism. It was his other detour into the mainstream, a faint breach of art-house pieties. On its face, History travels the same path, but surging below is a controlled subterranean fury marking Cronenberg’s arrival at the summit of his talent.
Like a half realist, half impressionist collage of Saturday Evening Post covers, History’s Millbrook, Indiana lolls safely amid amber waves of grain—the breed of serene, bucolic hamlet that nourishes Republican pipe dreams. That is, a lyric simulacrum of heartland iconography, complete with dates over ice cream, sunlit baseball games, weekend nights along the main drag, streets wiped of litter and vagrants, a cartel of mom-and-pop outfits, and, of course, the friendly diner.
Two sociopaths ruffle this fantasia, when they upset the friendly diner run by Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), only to be strangely, efficiently dealt with. The media rushes to anoint Tom a hero and wins him unwanted celebrity. Right on cue, a mutilated gangster named Fogarty (Ed Harris) breezes into the diner. He addresses Tom as his estranged comrade in arms, Joey Cusack. History turns on this enigma: is Tom Stall really Tom Stall? Is this a case of mistaken identity, or is he really Joey, the killing machine, hiding from his big-city mob roots?
Adapted by Josh Olson from a graphic novel, the script shed its mob preoccupation. Instead, the family is the focus, with its brutal mutation drawn to the center. What our culture assumes about the family Cronenberg explores, insisting its dynamics “are so understood you can start from a higher level and go further.” Thrown into crisis, Tom’s marriage to Edie (Maria Bello) grounds his exploration. As a symbol of violence’s warping force, their moments of intimacy mark, in the director’s words, the “pivot points” in the arc of their marriage. More powerfully than the film’s Peckinpah-style flurries of gunplay, these scenes show how violence maims relationships, contorts Midwestern passivity into animalistic passion.
"I tell people 'knife fight,' because it sounds a lot more bad-ass than 'BB gun accident in my backyard treehouse'..."
History asks how cycles of violence begin, and how they gain momentum, until their ruin snowballs out of human hands. Could the seeds of violence, like original sin, be buried in every heart? A return to nature vs. nurture: do we blame our chemistry or our culture? Its origins interest Cronenberg as much as its morality. Can violence be justified? When done for the greater good, the dyed-in-the-wool utilitarian forgives unsavory deeds. This idea unites the hero and the vigilante, almost making them karmic instruments. They rest their aims, rescue or retribution, above the law. It’s the western way. And the western’s logic of self-preservation mirrors the logic behind war.
By tweaking the western, Cronenberg tweaks Bush’s cowboy diplomacy, where genre hallmarks—bin Laden wanted “dead or alive”—seep into foreign policy. The film unwraps this rhetoric, and the trigger-happy machismo behind it, as a fateful, surreal blurring of statecraft and stagecraft, life’s direst imitation of art. But Cronenberg is bigger than politics. His film is irreducible to ideology, and blows past mere allegory.
Poking holes not only in America’s self-mythology, but in the medium of its expression—Hollywood’s arsenal of stock genres—gives History its manifold feel. A Blue Velvet-style genre medley, History is a union of noir and western, thriller and art film. Film noir, with its purgatory of moral ambiguity, doomed heroes, and existential bleakness, reverberates here as deeply as the western, with its lawless honor culture and the bloodshed at its social roots. Mid-salute, Cronenberg upends these American traditions, tinkering with archetypes and refusing to idealize. He enfolds the visceral values of these two styles, species of the thriller, around the cerebral values of the art film, in which the thrills will be dissected and digested.
Mapping the sprawl of violence across the American consciousness, History tracks its spread into every nook of our society, even into the everyday. We witness the almost Darwinian, might-is-right social make-up of our high schools. Corporal punishment keeps order in our homesteads. Even the bedroom is tainted. Cronenberg sees our cultural bloodthirst reflected on the big and small screens, our press after ad dollars, and Hollywood’s blood merchants after box office tickets. We get hooked, inured to grisly images, and slowly numbed until death is worn of its weight. It’s the Ludovico treatment in reverse.
Cronenberg pulls off his meta-critique with impressive restraint. His hands are much lighter than Lars von Trier’s, and he curbs the postmodern urge to wax ironic. His handling of Middle America shows a respect alien to the coastal art houses besotted by von Trier and Alexander Payne, and never resorts to shtick or parody, neither satirizing nor sentimentalizing. Like a well-cut diamond, History glows from every facet. It illuminates not the answers, but the questions.
By: Roque Strew
Published on: 2005-10-12