David Cronenberg: A History of Violence (2005)


At first glance, A History of Violence appears to be a more straightforward outing from David Cronenberg. Adapted from a graphic novel, the film plays with a classic noir conceit of a man whose past comes back to haunt him. It contains powerhouse performances from its two leads and revels in calculated moments of violence exploding out of coiled tension. If you had never seen a Cronenberg film before, you could still appreciate the film’s Darwinian vision and revel in what an efficient dramatic thriller it is. But if you approach the film as Cronenbergesque and yet another distillation of this Freudian director’s disturbing psyche, you discover an entirely new side to the story, one that’s not just about the past haunting a man, but about human evolution, our animal nature, and the myth of stable society. Thus, A History of Violence is one of Cronenberg’s most accessible films, but like his other mainstream hit The Fly, it’s also an exquisite distillation of his obsessions.

The film follows Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), an unassuming diner owner living in the small town of Millbrook, Indiana. He leads an idyllic life and has a loving family. Our very first glimpse of the Stall family shows how loving they are to an almost parodic degree. Tom’s young daughter, Sarah (Heidi Hayes), awakens from a nightmare and Tom rushes in to calm her down. Soon enough, his teenage son, Jack (Ashton Holmes), and wife, Edie (Maria Bello), also arrive to help Sarah realize that there’s nothing to be afraid of in life. Tom assures her that “There’s no such thing as monsters,” but Cronenberg will soon show that not to be true.

In fact, the first scene of A History of Violence demonstrates the monstrous depravity people are capable of. In a virtuoso long take, Cronenberg follows two men (Stephen McHattie and Greg Bryk) checking out of a motel somewhere in the Midwest. Cronenberg’s camera moves slowly left to right, following the men from their motel room to their car and then to the manager’s office, where they’re going to “check out.” It only cuts after the one man enters the manager’s office to get some water and we’re finally shown the reality of what the men had been discussing in euphemism: they killed the manager and the maid in order to cover their tracks. The scene ends with the younger man finding a girl hiding in the bathroom and callously shooting her. With this monstrous act of violence setting the stage for what’s to come, it’s impossible to accept the lovely, Norman Rockwell-style American life as it’s being presented to us. And Cronenberg doesn’t want us to.

This opening remains one of the most memorable of the 2000s and is uncharacteristically flashy for Cronenberg. A History of Violence is more blunt and on-the-nose than most of Cronenberg’s work. It doesn’t waste time with implication or suggestion, instead clearly exploring its themes and moving forward with a furious narrative momentum. In short, the opening shot clarifies the film’s focus on violence and human evil wreaking havoc on the idyllic setting of America, leaving no room for misunderstanding.

After the younger man pulls the trigger to shoot the little girl, Cronenberg does a classic Spielberg-style smash cut to Sarah screaming in her bedroom and we meet the Stall family—the shot is almost a recreation of the famous smash cut in The Lost World: Jurassic Park, but it doesn’t have any of the humour of that edit. After meeting the Stalls, we follow the family in their ordinary routines and observe their touchingly corny family life. This being a Cronenberg film, part of this depiction of their routines follows Tom and Edie’s sex life, as sexuality is an essential way people demonstrate who they are. Here, we watch as Tom and Edie play out a high school roleplay when the kids are not home. Edie dresses in a sexy cheerleader outfit, while Tom blunders his way through his role as the wide-eyed teenage boy, overwhelmed by being with a girl. Cronenberg is foregrounding the notion of roleplay here, signalling us for what’s to come, but he’s also not mocking the characters or trying to show that they’re phony; in Cronenberg’s vision of society, everyone is playing a role all the time, in public and in private, as stable society is built upon agreed roles. So here, Tom and Edie are playing roles, but they do love each other, best exemplified by their performing 69 on each other, which is as selfless a sex act as you’ll ever see in a Cronenberg film.

Eventually, the film’s two narrative threads meet as the killers from the opening find their way to Millbrook and Tom’s diner. Leaving a trail of destruction in their wake and acting like agents of chaos in the mold of characters like Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men that’d come to define the cinema of the aughts, the killers hold up Tom’s diner and plan to kill everyone inside. But after the younger man gropes the waitress and plans to rape her, Tom springs into action and kills the men in a shockingly-violent display of self defense. He shoots the younger man through the glass door and blows the older man’s face apart with a shot to the head; Cronenberg lingers on the sight of Stephen McHattie’s decimated face, his jaw and mouth a mess of shattered flesh, to drive home the violence of Tom’s actions.

Tom is hailed a hero by the community for killing the men and saving the lives of those in the diner. But the media attention brings Philadelphia gangster Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) to town as Carl is convinced Tom is a gangster called Joey Cusack. Tom denies the truth, but soon enough, we learn that Tom truly is the Philly gangster, Joey Cusack. He fled his criminal life and created an American everyman identity, Tom Stall, to escape. This revelation fractures his family life and eventually leads him back to Philadelphia to come face to face with his mob boss brother, Richie (William Hurt), who has unfinished business with Tom/Joey.

Like many popular genre narratives, A History of Violence plays on the exploitation of small town America by larger urban forces. It follows a man who flees the sins of his past, takes refuge in the pastoral world of small town America, but then who is eventually pursued by those urban forces of his past, upsetting the peace and refuge of this idyllic American life. Only by taking violent action does he reset the carefully-established equilibrium of small town life. There are touches of Cronenberg’s depiction of small town America from The Dead Zone in how he captures the simple decency of the residents of Millbrook.

Without even taking the larger themes into account, A History of Violence is remarkable for its narrative efficiency. Cronenberg, who is as effective a narrative storyteller as exists in modern cinema, never gets enough credit for the clarity of his storytelling. A History of Violence is one of the best examples of his skill for narrative cause-and-effect. Character motivations are clear, each scene fuels the momentum of the one that follows it, and the film moves at a rapid pace. A History of Violence only runs 96 minutes, and it feels shorter than most episodes of prestige television due to its pacing. The cinematography is similarly efficient. Aside from the flashy opening shot, Cronenberg doesn’t bring attention to his camerawork, instead content to use classical shot construction to tell the story and nothing more. The result is an effective work of pulp filmmaking that’s as lean as Viggo Mortensen’s sinewy physique.

As well, taken purely in isolation, the performances are spectacular. Although he has less than 10 minutes of screen time, William Hurt makes the most of his Oscar-nominated role as Richie. The strange mix of tenderness and cold-hearted brutality makes his performance linger despite the brief screen time and there are few better line readings than his talk over the phone: “You’re still pretty good with the killing. That’s exciting.” Ed Harris is similarly great as Carl Fogarty, playing ice cold menace as he stalks the Stall family in Millbrook and forces Tom’s hand. Cronenberg ensures Harris gets a great line or two as well, especially his playfully terrifying, “And Mrs. Stall: don’t forget your shoes,” as he watches Edie and Sarah at the mall.

But this is ultimately Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello’s show and they rise to the occasion. If their performances weren’t just right, Cronenberg’s tale of transformation wouldn’t be credible. Because that is what A History of Violence is at its heart. It’s about the human capacity for transformation, and the limitations of such transformation. This is nothing new for Cronenberg, who has been obsessed with human transformation since his first films, but the emotional dimension of this look at evolution does bring new light to a familiar theme.

Instead of focusing on the body horror of physical evolution like in The Fly or Shivers, A History of Violence is more akin to Dead Ringers in its focus on the mental and emotional transformation of its characters. In many ways, Mortensen is giving a dual performance much as Jeremy Irons is in Dead Ringers, as he differentiates Tom and Joey through his physicality and voice. Cronenberg cues us to the film’s focus on transformation before we witness the killings in the diner and before we learn about Tom’s true identity. The story of Tom’s fry cook relays how an ex-girlfriend would have nightmares where “Instead of her boyfriend, [he] was some kind of demented killer.” This is the narrative of A History of Violence in a nutshell, capturing the film’s exploration of how Joey Cusack became Tom Stall and viewing it through the lens of Tom/Joey’s wife, Edie.

Once Tom kills the men in the diner and Carl Fogarty arrives in town, Joey is unleashed. Tom’s violent impulses are let loose once again, even though he has worked for decades to kill his old self and become more than what he was. He has transformed into a new, better being, but just as in The Fly or Crash, evolution is not perfect. There is always devolution mixed in with the growth, or, in the case of Joey’s transformation into Tom, there is an inability to escape the brutal characteristics of Joey that live on inside him. Just as Vaughan’s transformation into a metaphorically higher being in Crash unleashes his animalistic urges and need to dominate, the moment in the diner untaps the animalistic violence of Tom’s old self, Joey. As Edie says midway through the film, “I saw a killer, the one Fogarty told me about.” Tom has devolved into his old self and there’s no going back.

What’s so brilliant about A History of Violence, and so well observed by Cronenberg throughout his work, is that devolution is not restrained to the individual. Once violence is unleashed, it reverberates out and affects everyone surrounding the individual; it’s like the virus in Shivers, infecting one person after another. This is most evidently displayed in Tom’s son, Jack, who savagely beats up a bully at school after Tom kills the men in the diner. In early scenes, Jack is content to diffuse situations through humour and self-deprecation, but after Tom has shown his son the way, Jack uses violence to sort out his problems. Tom berates Jack for his actions, telling him that “In this family we do not solve our problems by hitting people.” Jack spits back, “No, we shoot them,” and Tom slaps him in response, proving the lie of his own words.

Jack grows violent like his father after the truth about his past has been revealed, but even Edie changes along with Tom, even though she never surrenders her role as the film’s moral perspective. This is most-clearly demonstrated in the violent sex scene on the staircase, where after lying to the sheriff, Tom forces himself upon Edie. She hits him and he hits her back and they end up wrestling on the staircase until Edie kisses him and they have violent sex against the wood of the stairs.

It’s one of the most uncomfortable scenes in Cronenberg’s entire filmography, not just for the ambiguity about whether the sex scene is rape or not—for Cronenberg’s part, he included Edie initiating the kiss to try to clarify the scene, but there is still a deeply-disturbing ambiguity here—but because it stands in such marked contrast to the tender, selfless sex scene that came earlier in the film. This is Cronenberg at his most Freudian, showing how transgression unleashes our violent natures and how these natures cannot be controlled once they’re unleashed.

Of course, this Freudian understanding of repression and transgression is not limited to the individual. It affects the society as a whole. Thus, in A History of Violence, Tom’s devolution to Joey does not only affect him and his family, but it speaks to the whole fabric of American society. In many ways, A History of Violence operates like Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, with a man of violence abandoning his ways, being forced back to committing violence to right wrongs, and then being unable to bury that violence once it has been unleashed once again. Similar to how William Munny’s violence in Eastwood’s film stands in for the uncorking of America’s violent soul, Tom’s regression to his old ways also reveals the violence that lingers beneath the stability of American life.

This undercutting of the myth of America is not an accident here or something that can be gleaned from the margins of the film’s thematics; it’s too overarching to be anything but deliberate. For one, it’s important that the film takes place in the American heartland, as small town America has always been valued as the “real America.” Tom has created the ‘All American family” and is “living the American dream,” as Richie says. He purposefully fashioned a family that resembles the American ideal, but his family is built on a lie, just like the American ideals it attempts to fabricate.

Furthermore, Tom’s violence in the diner is celebrated by the community around him. He’s labelled “American hero Tom Stall” and not once do people equivocate over the brutality of Tom’s actions, even if they were done in self defense. For this small community that’s meant to stand in for America as a whole, the application of violence protects the community and is an ultimate good. In fact, Tom’s actions are essentially the playing out of a fantasy that many American men have about the world; they hope to be in the midst of a mass shooting or terrorist attack so that they can play the hero and unleash their violence on the world in a socially-approved way—they want to satisfy their bloodlust by being the hero.

All of this shows that Tom’s actions in A History of Violence are meant as a larger statement on American society. It’s not that Tom is a false American hero; it’s that he is a true American hero, and that American heroism is built upon a foundation of violence and the application of myth upon myth. Like Unforgiven, the film is about the re-establishment of equilibrium through violence. Thus, the instability and moral transgression that comes along with Tom’s heroic violence, such as his brutality with his family and unquenchable thirst for violence, are part and parcel to the American identity.

The haunting final scene clarifies the film’s exploration of violence being a cornerstone of the American identity. If Tom’s family is the All American family—the ideal that the country strives for—then there is no way to read the final scene, where Tom returns home after murdering Richie and his men and walks in on his family having supper, as anything other than a consent and justification of the violence Tom has committed in the film. As Tom stands by the door, watching his family eat a humble American dinner, his daughter, Sarah, gets up from the table, grabs a plate, and puts it in the place setting where Tom usually sits. Tom sits down and Jack hands him the meatloaf. Tom stares at Edie and Edie stares back and says nothing. He’s been accepted back into the ideal American family, despite all the depravity of what’s he’s done. Thus, his family, which stands in for America, has worried about the morality of what Tom has done, but ultimately approves of his actions. Why else accept him back?

The ending is chilling in the implications it has for America as a whole and the acceptance of violence as necessary to the stability of society. It weds Cronenberg’s Freudian obsessions with repression and transgression with a larger commentary on what it means to be an American hero. It explores the evolution and devolution of an individual and the viral effect that evolution has on the people around him. It’s a classically Cronenbergesque narrative, but it’s also a great thriller and one of the best neo-noirs of the new millennium. It’s yet another masterful work by this cinematic clinician who uses his camera to peel back the layers of what it means to be human.

9 out of 10

A History of Violence (2005, USA)

Directed by David Cronenberg; written by Josh Olson, based on the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke; starring Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, William Hurt, Ashton Holmes, Ed Harris, Peter MacNeill, Stephen McHattie, Greg Bryk.