Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

A History of Violence

Posted by CinemaPsycho on October 27, 2005

Directed by David Cronenberg/screenplay by Josh Olson, based on a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke/starring Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, William Hurt, Ashton Holmes/New Line Cinema

An Iowa diner owner is mistaken for a dead gangster after defending himself from killers.

David Cronenberg is just not a middle-of-the-road kind of guy. People either really, really love his movies or really, really hate them. Right now on the IMDb, there are “reviews” of his latest film that say things like, “far and away, the worst movie of all time”. All time??? Seriously, even I haven’t seen every movie made in the last century, and I really doubt that person has either. Besides, Dirty Love is easily the worst movie of all time, if you’re prone to exaggeration.

Anyway, Cronenberg never seems to get the respect he deserves, outside of a small fanbase of cult fanatics. Even when the critics like his films, they say it in a backhanded way, like “it’s good…if you like Cronenberg”. Which, to me, is like looking at an incredibly beautiful girl and then saying, “she’s OK, for a redhead”. You just want to scream at those people, “dude, you’d be lucky to have that and you know it.”

Which is my way of saying that, whether the material he works with fits your own personal tastes or not, you have to acknowledge that Cronenberg is a great filmmaker. You just can’t deny the combination of talent and ambition that the man possesses; and even though I haven’t loved every single film he’s made, it’s difficult to find a more fascinating filmography from any director in cinema history. From his early, low-budget cult horror films (They Came From Within aka Shivers, Rabid, The Brood) to his middle period of mainstream genre-film acceptance (Scanners, Videodrome, The Dead Zone, The Fly) to his later “serious works” in which the critical establishment finally caught up with him (Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, Crash, Spider), few filmmakers have evolved with more of an unerring, single-minded sensibility. With rare exception (the little-seen racing movie Fast Company), you know a Cronenberg movie when you see one. And more often than not, I can’t wait to see what comes next.

What’s interesting about A History of Violence is how un-Cronenberg the movie feels – at first. The life of small-town diner owner Tom Stall (Mortensen) couldn’t be more Norman Rockwell idyllic. The man’s practically a poster child for good old-fashioned American family values. But when a couple of murderous lowlifes wander into town and attempt to hold up the diner while terrorizing the customers, Tom acts instinctively and takes them out. His act of heroism makes the national news, and soon a couple of mobsters roll in, claiming that Tom is Philadelphia gangster “Joey Cusack”, who was supposed to have died two decades ago.

This is as much as the trailers reveal, and even that’s a little too much information. But there’s much more to the story than that, and it’s well worth finding out for yourself what the deal is. It’s not so much that the story itself is so original – it’s the way Cronenberg tells it, and the subtext within that makes Violence a must-see.

Cronenberg has always been interested in the human condition – what makes us the way we are? What causes us to behave the way we do? Is it animal instinct, our own individual psyches, or the standards and mores of society? Could it be a combination of all of those elements? And what happens to us when our inhibitions start to break down? Where many of his films deal with sexual repression in psychological terms, Violence naturally explores the nature of violence in the context of what could, on the surface, be seen as a standard exploitation-movie plotline. Countless Westerns and action movies have used the typical “quiet man pushed to the limit” story to justify revenge-thriller catharsis. Cronenberg’s world, like the real one, is much more complicated.

Even though Tom’s actions in the diner are celebrated as self-defense (and probably rightfully so), a good man standing up against evil, he crosses a line that brings him a world of trouble. Once he goes there, he can’t return to the person he thought he was. It affects his family, the way people see him, the way he sees himself. As hard as he tries to get back to “normal”, nothing will ever be the same. Whether or not he really is Joey Cusack (which I won’t reveal here), Tom has seen the Joey Cusack within himself, and he might as well be that person.

Once introduced, violence permeates every part of Tom’s life, including the town and the people he loves. It especially affects his son Jack (Holmes, an unknown giving an outstanding performance), a victim of high-school bullies who suddenly sees violence as the answer to his problems. The sad part is, he’s not completely wrong. As much as people tell kids to “ignore” bullying or “laugh it off”, the truth is that they’re expected to fight back or they’re ostracized. Not doing so can damage your self-esteem, in some cases permanently. This whole sequence isn’t in there randomly; Cronenberg is showing us the violence in the “normal” world, in everyday life, and it’s not so different from the brutal mayhem of the gangsters. It all comes from the same place – society itself. It’s all around us, whether you choose it or not.

Sometimes I think that violence isn’t just a physical act; it’s the damage that people do to each other on a regular basis. It’s the pain that the world inflicts on all of us, the slow deterioration that comes from an existence surrounded by anger, rejection and hate. Cronenberg shows us true horror here, the horror that comes not from an evil outside force but the sickness within all of us. It’s brutal and it’s deeply sad, and maybe some people just can’t handle it. But we live in a world where we claim to be civilized and reasonable, then we drop bombs on people we don’t like. I imagine that some people will watch this film and say, “so he killed off a few scumbags, what’s the big deal? They deserved it!” The problem is the toll that it takes on us, the knowledge that we can never escape what we are. There’s no glory in it, it’s just sad and extremely fucked up. That’s what makes A History of Violence a brilliant film with a message we all need to think about, maybe now more than ever. And that’s why Cronenberg is one of the greats.

**** 10/7/05

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