A History Of Violence

She has protected him, against her better judgment.  He tries to show his appreciation through a warm, physical gesture but she pulls away, disgusted.  She moves towards the staircase and he follows.  She slaps him, cursing his existence in her life.  He grabs her by the throat.  She gets away and moves upwards.  He pulls down her leg, ending her escape.  He’s on top of her but in a moment of clarity, backs off.  She pulls him closer.  He doesn’t resist.  In this uncomfortable setting, there is deep arousal.  And as soon as it ends, there is deep revulsion.
That scene cuts to the heart of David Cronenberg’s A History Of Violence, an entertaining yet flawed and familiar film about the dark seducing the light and its emotional after-effects.
The woman is Edie (a terrific Maria Bello) and the man is Tom (Viggo Mortenson in one of his finest performances).  She’s a lawyer, he runs his own diner in a small, sleepy town in Indiana.  They have a teenage son and a young daughter.  They’re a typical, well-adjusted American family with few serious worries.
That all changes when two sadistic, mysterious murderers demand coffee and pie right at closing time one life-altering night.  Tom softly rebuffs their initial request until it becomes painfully clear what they’re really after.  Soon, guns are drawn and a woman’s life is threatened.  In a matter of seconds, the tense atmosphere is defused, all because of Tom. 
It is a stunning scene to behold, beautifully choreographed, acted and directed.  But Cronenberg has an agenda with it.  As he told the press at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival, he wanted the audience to revel in the violence in order to make a point about their complicity.  By rooting for Tom as he singlehandedly and coldly disposes of two particularly nasty characters, despite it being a justifiable act of self-defense, he’s purposefully arousing our animalistic sensibilities, drawing out of us an undeniable hypocrisy.  What is that hypocrisy?  It’s the double standard we have about violence itself.  There’s nothing pleasant or sweet about someone getting shot at, stabbed or brutally beaten, especially when it happens to the innocent (think Schindler’s List).  But we thoroughly enjoy seeing awful human beings get what’s coming to them (think the end of Breakdown).  Cronenberg’s point is that perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this isn’t necessarily the violence itself, but how we as audience members apply this double standard emotionally.  We are being seduced by acts that should repel us, not turn us on.  
Tom’s actions at the diner destroy the tranquility of his life forever.  Endless news coverage is watched not just by local citizens but also out-of-towners like Carl Fogarty (the excellent and creepy Ed Harris) who just happens to stop by his diner one night for some coffee.  Carl knows something no one else in this town does and he’s not shy about saying it to Tom’s face.  He calls him Joey but Tom doesn’t blanch.  Although Mortensen is very good here as he calmly and diplomatically denies Carl’s claims, it’s immediately clear this is no case of mistaken identity.  Otherwise, we wouldn’t have a movie.
Meanwhile, Tom’s son, Jack (Ashton Holmes making a notable cinematic debut here), is being harassed by a transparent coward named Bobby (well played by Kyle Schmid).  During a baseball game in gym class, Bobby oversells his hitting abilities as he predicts a magic moment before his next appearance at the plate.  Jack takes it away from him and he harbours a grudge.  In the locker room, Bobby is all bluster and hyperbole as he confronts Jack.  With quick wit and brave restraint, Jack convinces the hapless bully to back down, now more frustrated and resentful as ever.  It’s a revealing scene.
In a shocking sequence later on, Bobby tries to goad Jack into a fight in their high school hallway.  He pushes him to say something funny, desperate in his bid to reclaim his dignity, manhood and reputation.  When his friends prevent Jack from escaping peacefully and with Bobby arousing his anger exponentially with one incendiary remark after another, Tom’s son offers an explosive response, completely unexpected.  Cronenberg succeeds again in arousing our sympathies while forcing us to face our double standard about being seduced by this kind of violence.
And that brings us back to the sex scene on the stairs.  Once the basic truth is exposed and can no longer be denied, and more shocking violence has taken place, and after the local Sheriff gets nowhere with an investigation, feelings of anger and betrayal quickly escalate to actions of swift violence and rough sex.  It’s important to note that this an act of consent.  It is not rape.  Bello and Mortensen discover a side to their sexuality they never expected.  In essence, it is the first time their marriage has been tested, the first time their sex life has become dangerous.  In an earlier love scene, she puts on a cheerleader outfit which leads to silly, romantic role playing but there’s no danger, no risk.  Only the illusion of it.  In that sequence, they’re making love.  In the other, they’re fucking.  You can see both of them physically, mentally and emotionally wrestling with the new setting, literally struggling with their sexual impulses in this alien environment.  Bello is so angry with Mortensen but also, so deeply aroused by his behaviour.  In her mind, she’s having an affair with someone she doesn’t know, a man who pushes her in ways her husband never did.  It is a beautifully executed sequence and it cuts to the core about good people being seduced by the dark and the consequences that follow.
A History Of Violence reminded me a lot of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, a far superior work.  Both ask the question, "Can a violent man successfully repress his violence, henceforth becoming a man of peace?"  Both explore the emotional fallout of violent acts, particularly those committed by the heroes.  But Cronenberg’s film takes a different tack by also focusing on the audience’s hypocritical feelings about violence, an interesting idea.  By throwing provocative acts of chaos in our face, is he challenging us to curb our lustful enthusiasm for violent retribution?  He can challenge us all he wants but because we accept this violence as staged rather than real, is it really fair to argue against our "complicity" when we know no one was actually harmed during the making of this picture?  Isn’t he just trying to have it both ways by exciting us with well crafted simulated action while condemning our joy for seeing the brutal demise of villains?  Is he ultimately rewarding our intelligence while simultaneously scorning our emotions?
Perhaps that is why this is a good film and not a great one, like Unforgiven, which had a much more effective anti-violence theme and more memorable dialogue.  A History Of Violence asks provocative questions that can’t be fully and honestly answered, and it asks us to dissect our reactions we probably won’t change any time soon.  Then again, maybe Cronenberg’s a realist, making these observations through cinematic manipulation without expecting us to agree or alter our perceptions. 
Still, you admire his ambition and his skill as a filmmaker.  This is an enjoyable picture as intense and predictable as it can be at times.  We care about these characters, thanks to the first-rate cast.  (William Hurt has a terrific cameo in the third act.  It resulted in a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination.)  Few directors are brave enough to explore territory like this.  Many pander rather than inspire.  Cronenberg movies require the audience to pay full attention rather than just stare blankly without thinking, unlike most movies, and they motivate heated debates after screenings.  The film shares common traits with Crash, his draining but effective 1996 feature about empty souls coming alive emotionally through their obsessive compulsive auto erotic behaviour.  It’s a much bleaker film, one of Martin Scorsese’s favourite films of that decade, but it, too, understands the seductive and addictive qualities of the dark side of human nature.  I found its character study fascinating despite the many unstimulating sex scenes.
The final shot of A History Of Violence, a quiet dinner table staredown, is perfect.  It allows each individual viewer to offer their own explanation for what the characters are feeling and thinking, and to even speculate on their futures.  Some will feel relieved, others confused, while many more will find it despairing.  For me, it’s rightly ambigious, the one moment where Cronenberg reserves judgment on the audience’s reaction.
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Thursday, March 6, 2008
3:29 a.m.
Published in: on March 6, 2008 at 3:28 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. […] David Cronenberg made A History Of Violence ten years ago, he set out to make an important point about one particular cinematic double […]

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