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A History of Violence

A History of Violence

David Cronenberg

USA, 2005

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Review by Chiranjit Goswami

Posted on 20 September 2005

Source New Line Cinema 35mm print

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Features: The 30th Toronto International Film Festival

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Immediately following its debut at Cannes earlier this year, David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence was critically lauded by American critics, most notably from the always-vocal contingent of New York area film critics that heaped praise upon the film (though I’m certain Armond White has a contrary position). Unfortunately, the Cannes jury was not so impressed, deciding against bestowing the film with any substantial awards. Understandably, in the months afterwards a minor backlash has followed, with the most prominent grievance being that the film is somewhat mundane when the “a film by…” credit is ignored, actually functioning more as a mistaken emulation of its genre rather than an intentional subversion.

Screened this past weekend at the Toronto International Film Festival, the film and director enjoyed a home-court advantage in terms of critical and audience reaction, including an enthusiastic ovation following the screening I attended. Nonetheless, the contrast of the responses of his hometown spectators to those of the blasé Cannes crowd, New York supporters, and detractors anywhere demonstrates the effectiveness of Cronenberg’s “Neo-Western.” Indeed, Cronenberg’s success is that reactions to his latest work are so decidedly diverse, since his film is so skillfully adept at presenting the ambiguous nature of violence.

How one ultimately perceives A History of Violence depends largely upon one’s fundamental perceptions on its central topic, which is stated bluntly within the title, as well as the assumptions one makes regarding the intentions of the creators. The presentation of violence on film remains a contentious and controversial issue. Filmmakers regularly embrace or deflect accusations of exploitation, glorification, and gratification in order to have audiences view their work in the intended context. There is even an outcry, which is usually justified, whenever violence is presented as pure cinematic spectacle. Even the debate over whether that spectacle is meant to entertain or to shock becomes an ethical swamp. Thus, depicting violence on film becomes a question of morality on the part of creator and audience. One must always question the decision to present violence through a medium that is capable of both cool, distanced reflection and warm, passionate embrace. However, in making these judgments, we fall victim to the natural human tendency to impose our own morality upon that which we are evaluating. Sadly, we (and I include myself in this allegation) often reject a filmmaker’s work whenever a lapse occurs in the alliance between our respective perceptions. Thus, the basic problems in our evaluation is that we either impulsively dismiss that which does not thoroughly conform to our chosen ideology, or we unconsciously warp that which is under scrutiny to fit our own moral mentality. In some ways, it is in exposing this essential dilemma in which A History of Violence excels.

If one is genuinely expecting that Cronenberg’s latest effort will provide an absolute validation of their own principles regarding violence, they will become frustrated almost immediately. Cronenberg navigates the border between condemnation and endorsement of violence so deftly that it’s perfectly understandable that viewers will perceive the film to support their own viewpoint as dove or hawk, or entirely object to its compliance with the position of their opponent. Amusingly, during screening at both Cannes and Toronto, spectators have become noticeably outraged at the reactions of their fellow audience members. In fact, viewers should instead ponder the film’s ambivalence to its central subject matter, since A History of Violence functions more an enigmatic enactment that fascinates, rather than ideological manifesto that offers a redundant argument.

Cronenberg intentionally teases his chosen genre right away. In his preamble he introduces two drifters, lazily conversing about their tiresome travels. The discussion is markedly corny, though the lines appear to be delivered earnestly on the surface. One of our ramblers then decides to settle their motel tab. Meanwhile, Cronenberg wryly follows the other as he rustles up their trusty stead, a Ford Mustang, to the front door. The comical tracking shot takes all of three seconds and instantly challenges the ludicrously archaic attributes of the Western when applied to modern settings. However, just before we can dismiss the Western as an outdated genre, Cronenberg subjects us to a most ghastly scene, before we witness an entirely vile action for which a vague stance feels inappropriate. Thus, though we are now on uncertain grounds, we are once again plunged into the required traits of a Western, with our knowledge of evil rumbling into a quiet town, destined to cause strife for the locals.

We then take a tour of Millbrook, Indiana, an exceedingly quaint Midwestern town where life moves at a peaceful pace. We focus on picturesque Tom and Edie Stall and their children, awkward adolescent Jack, who dodges bullies through self-deprecating tactics and an understanding of his position within the high-school hierarchy, and adorable little Sarah, who is scared of monsters and positively cavity-inducing in all her sweetness. Tom runs the local diner and he and his wife are pillars within this blissful community composed of bland folks engaging in content conversations and displaying the usual characteristics of Anywhere, USA small towns. It’s laid on so thick — whether it’s the sheriff who wears a straw cowboy hat, the scrawny teenager who saves the baseball game, the school bully that wears the jacket that declares him as a jock, or the constant mentions of attending church — that it soon begins to function as scrutiny through excess. However, rather than treat the setting with utter distain and scorn, as countless films have, Cronenberg gently uses the situation as starting point instead of merely surface. There is really no depravity lurking beneath the community, considering the fact that, other than the Stall’s misfortunes, the rest of the town continues unhindered. In fact, Cronenberg isn’t attempting to expose the brutality under the façade so much as the trying to explore the actions and assumptions needed to sustain the serene ideal. One of those underlying assumptions is honesty, which is addressed during a conversation Tom has with his cook and a patron regarding sex and marriage.

The idyllic small-town atmosphere is finally punctured when the pair of ruthless killers we were initially greeted by blow into town and decide to make Tom’s diner the site of their next massacre. In a burst of bravery, Tom instinctively reacts to this threat by matching and surpassing the vicious actions of these intruders. At first content to protect himself and his customers, once he is viciously stabbed in the foot by one attacker, he decisively dispatches both killers with startling and brutal efficiency. It’s as if the knife that slices through Tom’s tendons creates an infection. Having thwarted the robbery and saved his fellows neighbors from danger, Tom is acknowledged as a hero and is garnished with all the accompanying fame of a local celebrity. Alas, he also becomes the subject of unwanted attention from a sinister, disfigured gangster who appears at Tom’s doorstep convinced our hero is an elusive traitor from the past. Under duress from this seemingly “wrong-man” scenario and constantly hounded by his history, Tom’s perfect life begins to crumble.

It is at this point where Cronenberg’s film decides to diverge slightly from its source material, the slightly simplistic and clichéd graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke. Though it is by no means tame, the film is far less grotesque than the graphic novel that easily earns its qualifying adjective. Cronenberg and screenwriter Josh Olson remove an entire back-story that provides justification for the actions of its central character and instead chooses to situate all the conflicts within the present where the intentions beneath actions remain hazy. They beef up the role of the son to serve as a parallel conflict, changing his disposition from enthusiastic childish devotee to conflicted aware participant, and allowing him to take a decisive action once relegated to another adult. Also Tom’s relation to the criminals that terrorize his family is adjusted slightly and the interactions between Tom and Edie are illustrated in a much more complex manner.

The result of Cronenberg’s labors is a considerably unsettling exploration of just how violence provides satisfaction for those who practice its rituals. As repugnant as it is, Cronenberg is not so naïve to believe that violence does not serve some purpose. Though sensitive souls may object to Cronenberg’s narrative, there is no doubt that both his protagonist and audience attain some measure of satisfaction from his brutal actions against those that threaten him, however fleeting or deceptive that resulting contentment may be. On its exterior, A History of Violence functions as a conventional, albeit riveting, action flick. At one point evoking the name of “Dirty Harry,” the film also features the deliberately skewed placement of a shotgun in relation to the family members, where it becomes clear that operating the weapon is a distinctly masculine task, where women fumble and aim in terror while men shoot with lethal conviction. Some have even claimed it imitates a typical revenge saga, though I would question whether there is actually any revenge present within the film. However, even though it readily exhibits sudden spurts of mayhem and various ceremonial sequences of combat, the film also pauses to inspect these spectacles of violence, however briefly, and constantly implicates its audience in the proceedings. A History of Violence is a film that at one moment provides crowd-pleasing fulfillment of revenge fantasies for the fragile — which were readily greeted with applause in Toronto — before delivering a startlingly, gasp-inducing, rebuke just moments after, where our newly-crowned champion is once again harshly demoted by a figure of authority. The film pulls the rug out so often, that it abruptly reveals the flaws of its audience just as often as it does to its characters. On more than one occasion at the screening I attended, audience members found themselves entirely isolated in their misplaced cheers. It’s a situation where viewers should ask themselves why exactly we sometimes respond with applause and why exactly we often choose to abstain.

There is little in regards to camera movements, framing, or editing that makes A History of Violence an immediately distinctive Cronenberg film. Predictably, the film is saturated in bland brown and tan colors when situated in Millbrook, and then turns dark and shadowy when Tom ventures off to a sinister urban destination. There are a few moments where Cronenberg segregates or traps Tom within a frame and one instance where he heavy-handedly positions Tom upside-down on-screen when his world is finally inverted. Despite these flashes, the filmmaking style is decidedly ordinary in its execution, even providing sound design that feels just a bit too perfect. However, it appears the film is conscious of its own routine nature. It’s pedestrian to such an alarming degree that the inherent deceit of its construction becomes purposely apparent, even down to the locations that feel like sets assembled on a soundstage.

The casting of Mortensen and Bello as an implausibly flawless couple is adequate artifice on its own, but the contrived atmosphere is more apparent in the crafty performances of Cronenberg’s cast, who adeptly maneuver between sincere acting and fabricated role-playing, sometimes fusing both. Often underrated, Mortensen and Bello are worthy of praise for their delicate performances and commitment to Cronenberg’s concept. Given that the material concerns characters assuming identities, disguising themselves, and covering flaws in order to exist peacefully within a tranquil society, the film continues Cronenberg’s fixation upon the composition of personality, and how the mind grapples (with the body on this occasion) to repress and reveal particular aspects of character. At one point Edie bluntly asks if Tom is some sort of “multiple-personality schizoid.”

Throughout the film there are instances of characters engaged in role-playing, most obviously in Tom’s struggle to conceal his natural tendencies. Mortensen is particularly skilled at portraying a man whose everyday expressions appear slightly mannered and practiced. Certainly Tom’s trained gestures that impersonate a responsible citizen exhibit a similar precision to Joey’s instinctive responses that serve as evidence of a human killing machine. However, Tom is certainly not Wyatt Earp in this scenario, since he is never proud of his own impulses and he is not willing to accept his bleak destiny. Thus, where Mortensen truly shines is in conveying Tom’s humiliation at the fierce physical reactions that his body cannot resist. Furthermore, there is the troubling notion of whether or not Tom’s admission of his past is actually honest or if Joey is just a more natural role for him to play. Additionally, we also witness Jack discover his physical abilities, which feels like self-suppression in favor of civility in retrospect. In fact Jack appears genuinely conflicted whether to embrace or resent his genetic inclinations. Finally, there is Edie, who switches without hesitation from devoted sweetheart wife capable of indulging a male fantasy to indifferent combative spouse able to match her husband’s aggression. At one moment she defends her husband to local authorities and in the next she is disgusted by Tom’s mere presence.

These dynamics result in remarkable interactions fuelled by the tensions that arise due to these extreme circumstances. Almost every scene in the film is a face-off, in which characters circle one another in order to establish dominance. During a confrontation between Carl and Tom, and following an extensive scuffle between Tom and Fogarty’s thugs, Jack rescues his father by making a savage, but decisive, decision. The resulting expression that Tom bestows upon his newly initiated son is restrained, but truly unsettling. Within a few brief moments, Mortensen is able to subtly convey a staggering range of emotion including regret, acceptance, and concern at his son’s choice, but also recognition, respect, pride, and possibly even hostility at the threat his offspring now represents to his own patriarchal position. From this point onwards, it’s difficult to determine whether Jack’s protests against his father’s actions are due to a perceived moral obligation or because he believes himself better suited for his father’s position of authority within the household.

Equally intriguing are the sex scenes between Tom and Edie that Cronenberg and Olson have inserted into the narrative. The first commences in a bedroom with Edie dressing-up as a mischievous high-school cheerleader to disguise her persona as loving wife. Her efforts are greeted by a perplexed expression from Tom, who stands bewildered at his wife’s sudden alteration. However, Tom’s reaction still retains a slightly calculated hint of performance, as if this response is how he feels he should act in order to match Edie’s acting abilities. The scene ultimately results in the couple reciprocating one another’s efforts yet again, as they tangle their bodies and limbs into the mutual gratification of the 69 position. Thus there is an initial harmony established with each spouse attaining an equal status within the marriage.

In contrast, the second sex scene occurs spontaneously on the staircase, but displays a rare brutality during a consensual sexual encounter. With secret identities now revealed, an argument between our perfect couple quickly descends into an exchange of blows. Frustrated that Edie will not acknowledge him, Tom aggressively clutches and grabs at her, pursuing her up the stairs, before overwhelming her on the stairs. However, what was foreshadowed as a sexual assault is briefly defused when Tom turns away in disgust at his own actions. Surprisingly, it is Edie who then initiates the contact, having now been confronted by her husband’s “other” personality. In an attempt to connect with her husband’s hostile half and discards his tender side, the couple collides once more as they proceed to pummel each another. Edie is obviously trying to unite with this new persona that has finally been revealed. During the scene, Cronenberg shoots a few limbs as if they were separated and flung aside. The encounter concludes with Edie shoving aside a suddenly fragile Tom in disgust. Just who is Edie repulsed by? Is it her violent attacker Joey or her meek husband Tom? Given the desperate expression on her husband’s face it appears Tom’s weakness and inability is what she is trying to shed herself of. Edie then flaunts her superior position by exposing herself to Tom in their bedroom, in what amounts to an attempt to incite another aggressive response. It all amounts to a strange pile-up of primal actions and responses that detail just how attractive the discovery of violence can become.

However, Cronenberg is not content to leave us with the simple notion that violence can be sexy. Instead, he makes a concerted effort to also show us the consequences of assault. Thus, Cronenberg undermines the satisfaction of violence once more, subjecting us to an inspection of the damage to Edie’s body, hovering upon the jarring images of scars and bruises on her back and hips. Of course, these are not the only results of violence that we witness. Throughout the film there are a few concise shots that linger on the grisly consequences of the featured violence. These close-ups are notably detailed and disturbing in their exploration of how one’s anatomy is physically affected by aggression and are typical of Cronenberg’s work. It’s even more distressing once we realize that most of these vulgar images resulted from the actions of our protagonist. Upon reflection, it’s quite obvious that the most deadly weapon in the film is actually Tom, and we have to wonder if this weapon is being used responsibly.

One prominent device Cronenberg employs to emasculate the malicious actions of his protagonists and expose our compliance with cinematic violence is humor. Unfortunately, the success of the comedy relies heavily upon the viewer’s recognition and acceptance of the technique. Inserted generously, the farce tends towards the absurd, but never ventures completely into the ridiculous. Violent actions within the film are repeatedly undercut by comedy that somehow spoils the promised satisfaction. When our hero finally defeats his enemy, the concluding clash is less a demonstration of valiant efforts, or skillful struggle against impossible odds, but actually more an exhibition of incompetency as described by a kingpin scolding his soldiers. The viewer is not really allowed to revel in our conqueror’s supposed superiority, especially considering Tom certainly exceeds the ferocity required to vanquish his opponents, turning what normally serves as reparation and affirmation into something rather nasty and cruel. As our hero returns home, has he triumphantly succeeded in protecting his family or merely survived through the embarrassing inadequacy of his opponents? Was his family even threatened by this last batch of gangsters, or did Tom perform this final slaughter to serve his own selfish needs? Can Tom really sweep the past away with this concluding act that only exemplifies his violent history? Tom arrives back home to a family that performs the emblematic ceremonies of a model American household, but are these actions now reduced to insincere hollow rituals? In a clever creative decision, Cronenberg isolates each family member to their own close-up frame, further displaying the bonds within their family unit to now be severed in their new reality.

Ultimately, the trouble with A History of Violence may be that it works too well. Cronenberg’s film functions in so many different ways that it’s hard to grasp completely. We are instead left to answer a variety of questions about the film’s substance. Is it a taut traditional thriller or a surprisingly subversive satire? Is it a reinforcement of the standard ideals of the Western or a challenging adjustment of trite outdated American morals? Is it a tense involving drama or a droll amusing comedy? Is it a tragedy of inescapable circumstance or merely a travesty of art? Such questions could lead to irritation, especially from those who derisively dismiss the film based on the assumption that the film epitomizes conventional Hollywood drivel. I anticipate the film will fall prey to two polar opposite schools of scorn. There will probably be those that lament that an eccentric auteur could possibly have created something so pedestrian. It’s also quite plausible that many will rehash their protests against Von trier in order to reprimand a foreigner for critiquing the American small-town mentality. Such fiery reactions are the expected outcome when a director refuses to simplify his message.

What does appear to be clear is that Cronenberg is not interested in the dismissive condemnation or the blustering justification of violence, but rather a complicated presentation. In this case, Cronenberg seems more interested in examining spontaneous reaction, which shouldn’t be surprising given his preoccupation with the human need to unleash our secret desires. The violence displayed in A History of Violence is fairly ruthless throughout, but when perpetrated by our central character it remains mostly instinctive and reactionary. It’s difficult to argue that violence is not among our most primitive and guarded desires, or that its release offers instant satisfaction for the prevailing party. Unfortunately, we only realize its temporary nature and its resulting destruction afterwards. Rather than offering clarity, the presence and persistence of violence seems to only entangle us further. Thus, it is amusingly ironic that a film such as A History of Violence, which chooses to scrutinize initial reaction, may fall victim to impulsive judgments that are not accompanied with proper contemplation.

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