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A History of Violence
Reviewed by Laura Eldred, © 2005

Format: Movie
By:   David Cronenberg
Genre:   Drama
Released:   September 30, 2005
Review Date:   October 05, 2005
Audience Rating:   Rated R
RevSF Rating:   9/10 (What Is This?)

Body count: 10
Bared breasts: 2
Mutilated faces: 3
Well-thought out considerations of the relationship between past violence and the present: 1

First, we need to be clear about one thing: This is not a horror movie. The camera does, occasionally, linger lovingly on the above-mentioned mutilated faces, but these moments are brief; and the mutilation, while successfully realistic and gory, is not really the point. Usually something not being a horror movie is a strike against it in my book; give me a high body count and some bouncing titties. I’m a Joe Bob Briggs girl. But Cronenberg has done something different here, and I think it pays off for him in a big way.

A History of Violence is based on a 1997 graphic novel by John Wagner, and the film is true to the rough outlines of that story. Small-town businessman Tom Stall (in the novel, he’s Tom McKenna) finds himself in a sticky situation: Several psychopaths have found their way to his diner and seem to be intent on killing everyone inside. Seeing his chance, Tom grabs the gun and makes short work of them, but this has unforeseen results. Tom becomes a hero, and his picture is featured on newspapers and in TV spots. Soon, some scary-looking mob guys show up from Philadelphia, claiming that Tom is really Joey Cusack, a rampaging mob murderer who disappeared some years back. Though Tom denies this, violent shenanigans and plot twists ensue.

Viewers are consistently on Tom’s side, and a great deal of the credit for this goes to Viggo Mortensen, who manages to shift from bloodthirsty glee to charming vulnerability faster than you can think “WHAT exactly did he do to that dude’s face?” He finds himself in situations in which the only viable response seems to be a violent one. As he fights to save his own life and his family’s lives, we root for him. But certainly this makes us complicit in those acts of violence, and the film problematizes this. For while, on one level, the violence of the film is presented as a sort of Hollywoodized crime caper, replete with wandering psychopaths and organized crime bosses (stereotypical portrayals of the kind of people we feel need to be killed off), on another level the violence is clearly something much more real and closer to home.

Before Tom kills the two would-be thieves, the Stalls have a perfect small-town American life; he owns the local diner, they drive a station wagon, and he fixes up his truck in his spare time. Everything is very mom-and-apple-pie. Once Tom becomes the town’s hero, violence seems to infect the Stall household. Tom’s son Jack finally responds to the local bully’s taunts by giving the jerk an overzealous butt kicking. When Tom’s wife Edie becomes increasingly distant, Tom reacts with what appears initially to be attempted rape; but, just as Tom’s anger recedes and he begins to back off, she becomes an all-too-willing participant in some very violent stairs-sex. It seems quite clear that while she disapproves of the face mutilating and so forth, it also turns her on. Violence seems to beget more violence, as when Tom tries to lecture Jack for beating up that bully. Tom says, “We do not solve our problems by hitting people,” to which Jack replies, “No, we shoot them.” Tom then solves this problem by slapping Jack. The wheels on the violence bus go round and round.

Is violence, then, a necessary and universal feature of our culture? Can we escape from past acts of violence having ever-expanding repercussions on our present and our future? These are weighty questions with unclear answers. If you figure it out, let the U.N. know. I’d like to know too; drop me an email. They’re certainly questions worth asking, however, and while the film stops short of answering them in anything resembling a concrete manner, it does offer just a glimmer of hope for Tom and his family.

Though the film suggests it’s impossible to escape from a violent past, it also offers the possibility that Tom could be forgiven. This possibility — offered at the end of the film — is very tenuous, but it’s there. This might sound rather like some abstract schmaltz you’d expect from a corner preacher: “We must all forgive! Forgive, my brothers and sisters! It’s the only way to move forward!” Certainly I detected a bit of such a response on my own overeducated, overcynical part: “Forgiveness! Bah humbug! What does that mean exactly and how do you do it?” The film doesn’t answer that for me, but forgiveness is a difficult choice made by individuals who can always choose not to forgive and who may have very good reasons not to. Turning the other cheek — not repaying violence with violence — is a skill difficult to master. But it’s also some kind of hope, however abstract or tenuous, for a better future.

RevSF contributor Laura Eldred is waiting for a sensitive, thoughtful remake of Evil Dead II. Maybe directed by Titanic’s James Cameron and starring Tom Cruise.

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