« Sounds, Words, Images | Main | Good Night, and Good Luck »

October 15, 2005

A History of Violence

I didn't intend to see David Cronenberg's A History of Violence (IMDB) until I read Girish's favorable comments about the film (I think the film was poorly marketed, but that's a rant for another day), and like him, I think it's a smart film that uses genre conventions in innovative ways to reflect on concepts such as America's myth of self-renewal and on the American Dream in general, as well as complicated questions about human identity (k-punk's treatment of genre is good here).

The film opens with a couple of criminals travelling through the heartland to avoid criminal prosecution. The more sympathetic of the two criminals, younger and more handsome commits a cold-blooded act of violence, and the film cuts to a young girl screaming in bed after a nightmare about monsters. Her father, Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), comes in to comfort her, and soon, her brother and mother (Maria Bello) join them. It could be a scene out of any domestic sitcom, down to the cliched words of comfort the family provides if not for the violent opening sequence In this regard, I think Jonathan Rosenbaum's favorable comment that almost any shot in the film could be regarded as a "cliche" is absolutely right). Later, the same criminals enter Tom's smalltown, midwestern diner, seeking to rob him and threatening the life of the diner's waitress. Tom responds with a shocking brutality, made all the more shocking by Cronenberg's paradoxically close-up but clinical treatment of his violent repsonse (note: Girish's comments on the portrayal of violence are worth reading). Because of his swift response in rescuing his employees, Tom quickly becomes a "hero," with the waitress and his chef both emphatically stating, "he saved us." Here Cronenberg subtly treats the media's role in promoting this form of heroism without overdoing it. Rather than the mobs of reporters typical of many Hollywood films, only one enterprising reporter awaits him at home to cover the story. As Girish notes, to some extent, the film's positioning of Tom as a hero makes us complicit. After all, he's the good guy.

[Note: There are probably some serious spoilers in the next few paragraphs] Tom's passive acceptance of his newfound status as hero only deepens the viewer's sense that something isn't quite right (k-punk's use of the descriptive term "uncanny" seems to fit here, and Andrew O'Hehir's description of Cronenberg's "dislocation effect" also works). Juxtaposed against Tom's newfound popularity in the community, we see images of his family life. His son is an outsider, bullied by other students. Tom and his wife work to keep their marriage exciting. During an early sex scene, Edie dresses up in a cheerleader's costume to re-create the teen years they never had together, aperformance that, as k-punk reminds us, calls attention to the fact that cheerleading itself is already a "performance." But this concept of domestic tranquility is gradually challenged. A local police officer is mystified at Tom's quick response. A mysterious car stalks the family home. Soon a tough guy named Fogerty (Ed Harris) shows up at Tom's restaurant, identifying him as a gangster from Philadelphia. Tom denies that he's the guy, but it becomes increasingly clear that he has a past life that he's trying to bury.

Primarily in Tom's attempts to bury this past, I regarded A History of Violence as critiquing the American Dream narrative of self-reinvention. As cronenberg himself notes in teh Salon interview, "It really is about America's mythology of itself rather than attempting to be a slice of life as it's lived in America now, which is quite a different thing." Once "Tom" admits that he's "Joey," the Philly gangster, Tom consistently reiterates that he "buried" Joey or that Joey is dead, but it's clear that he's unable to entirely shake this part of his past. At the same time, the film can be read, as Cronenberg ofers, as a meditation on America's ambivalence with violence (the cowboy myth that animates a certain version of foreign policy), and the film consistently places the viewer in a position of complicity with that violence, especially as Tom works to return to his wife and restore the "normal life" that has been shattered by the return of his (repressed) past.

I've already written far more about this film than I intended, which is testament to how deeply Cronenberg (and Mortesen, whom Cronenberg cites as a close collaborator) has engaged with some prominent myths about vioelnce and national identity. I think Violence is a film that will reward multiple viewings.

Posted by chuck at October 15, 2005 6:04 PM

Trackback Pings

TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference A History of Violence:

» A seamless tissue of fantasies from k-punk
Jodi Dean has an interesting reading of A History of Violence that is contrary to mine. She interprets the film as 'the son's fantasy of violence underlying the passive, ordinary goodness of his father'. (The son, as Jodi rightly... [Read More]

Tracked on October 18, 2005 5:58 AM


VIOLENCE, I was going to watch this yesterday but I changed my mind. Having read your review about the film, I'm considering of watching it today :D

Violence in schools, how prevalent is it? From time to time children get upset and angry, teachers need to be able to de-escalate the situation. There's a vital need for training. Intervening physically is a predictable occurrence. It could be to hold a child to prevent them injuring themselves or others. But it is going to happen. I had a certain amount of training on Behavior Modification Strategies. But nothing that would have prepared me for the kind of violent outbursts that I encounter from some students. Nothing on restraint techniques, for example.

Will the movie give me some ideas as a teacher of ED students?

Posted by: Teacher Sol at October 16, 2005 11:18 AM

The film only briefly deals with violence in schools (Tom's son is bullied in two separate scenes), and teachers are not relevant to either scene. The son's behavior is instead seen as a response to his relationship with and emulation of his father.

Posted by: Chuck [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 16, 2005 11:38 AM

Post a comment

Remember Me?

(you may use HTML tags for style)