Eric Hynes on A History of Violence
Uniquely positioned as both the best reviewed and least understood film of the year, A History of Violence is positively Verhoevian in its capacity to affirm entertainment expectations whilst savaging the immorality of both expectation and entertainment. But while Paul Verhoeven—ever the emigre jester in the court of American culture—is satisfied with simply goosing his audience with its own dark desires, David Cronenberg takes a subtler approach, retaining the vocabulary of a certain genre mythology while scrambling the syntax. No goosing, no big show, just an inverted version of the same thing we’ve come to expect, like a t-shirt with words backward and the seams showing. Of course, as any film editor would happily tell you, moving things around can change a meaning entirely. That some viewers couldn’t see much difference between A History of Violence and Death Wish 3 speaks not necessarily of media illiteracy but of the mythology’s sturdiness—and as Cronenberg deftly demonstrates, of its inherent corruptibility.
The myth? Redemption. It undergirds a landslide majority of cinema, from Ford and Disney to Scorsese, Schrader, Gibson, and Gallo. Furthermore, it’s the ramrod spine of Western civilization. The pauper-to-prince end that justifies the means of capitalism, the instability that gives democracy purpose, the change that forgives and enables, the present that forgets what’s past. The recreation story. Like it or not, all redemption is Christian. That’s the mold. And our culture is mass-produced in His image. There were second chances and comebacks B.C., but the whole point of J.C. was to trump and fulfill all that came before, to make things new and make the past immaterial. We’ve learned the lesson all too well, from reformed criminals, resilient politicians, and recovering addicts, to you-go-girl tell-alls that turn a frown upside down and take a nothing day—or a mean and crooked one—and make it seem worthwhile. All far cries from dying for the world’s sins, but it’s an awfully easy pose to emulate. Metaphors are mutable by nature. And nowhere is the metaphor more durable than in the cinema.
Cronenberg doesn’t ignore his filmic forebears and contemporaries, but what he’s really gunning for is the big-game source material, the original absolution, because postmodernist mucking and riffing ignores the full-on retro-redemptive moment that we’re in. Though working and shooting in his native Canada, Cronenberg sets his film in a midwestern American town that straddles a thin line between idyllic and ghastly—an apt gloss for the current state (of mind) of the entire union. And his dumbed-down protagonist with a fiercely guarded past is a good description for the John Wayne-walking, “what-me-worry”-talking, reformed, recovered, reborn, and redeemed Christian in the White House, master at forgetting and forgiving his own past sins (and silencing those who refuse to play along).
Alas, forgetting doesn’t depend on a single man’s stubborn denial but requires collective amnesia; each man’s conversion is affirmed by a supportive congregation. A History of Violence challenges the dogma of absolution by making moments of viciousness impossible to shake. We may choose, for the sake of retaining the redemptive myth, to forgive and forget what we see, regardless of their monstrosity, but the cost is immense: losing what’s past, denying what is, enabling the unthinkable. The film calls us out on what we’ve trained ourselves to tolerate. Not violence solely (the title, like the film, merits a broader metaphorical reading), but all manner of smallness, weakness, and inhumanity—ugly reality denied for the sake of psychological incomplexity.
For much of the film, we don’t know if Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is mistaken for another man, experiencing amnesia, or in denial. Taking him at his word, reading his kind face, wanting to think the best of him, we give him every opportunity to prove the bad guys wrong. But even when the bad guys are proven right, we root for their quick eradication—they’ve disrupted a happy family, changed our kind perception, dug up a buried past. This sympathy and self-identification with a reformed character is nothing new, but it certainly feels different. The difference is the order in which we receive information. First we get to know the new man. Then we consider the possibility of the old man. Then we encounter the old man. Then we must reconcile the old man with the new man. Then, once reconciled, we must watch the old man overwhelm the new man before simpering back to his old new self. The dare, the perversity, is riding the bronco to the end and remaining at peace with the man we see before us. The us we’re taught to be, the WWJD us we really, really want to be, forgives everything about the old man in order to believe the new. Aims to forget everything we know and have seen and give him another chance. That’s the ideal. That’s redemption. But forced to sit across from it, with blood on its hands and guilt in its cheeks, we’re faced with the immorality of such an ideal. Do we dare pretend it didn’t happen? Do we dare overlook what we know to be? Do we prefer blindness? Do we imperil ourselves for the sake of believing the beauty of the myth? What is forgiveness worth to us, and who will pay for it?
All such questions are shouldered in the film by Edie Stall (Maria Bello), a good woman (with no closeted skeletons that we know of) faced first with the great lie that is the love of her life and then with the challenge of accommodating into her new existence an unacceptable truth. That she seems to accept this truth is astonishing (and damningly familiar) enough, but Cronenberg goes a step further. Not only can she live with a cold-blooded killer, but it actually turns her on. Her transformation is ultimately more disturbing and instructive than Tom/Joey’s, who simply wants to convert his sins away—and finds a community happy to cooperate; Edie, too newly open-eyed to believe her husband’s redemptive fiction, instead holds firm to her love, even as its object has changed from bad to good. A greater, and yet graver myth trumps “all is forgiven”: love conquers all. Forgiveness and love, Christianity’s tidy foundational tenets, are, though beautiful, so universally appealing that they’re employed to sanction both truth and fiction, justice and injustice.
Cronenberg’s art is to convey these harsh truths in a narrative as humanly compelling as it is formally playful. Maybe you caught the conspicuous talk of church between locals in Tom’s diner, maybe you remember Tom Stall insisting to his wife that he was “born again” when he met her, and maybe you noticed Joey ceremoniously and unsanctimoniously washing the blood from his hands after his final killing spree. But you didn’t have to, because Cronenberg doesn’t make it necessary. So long as you wait out the terrifying final sequence, with the Stall family faced by, and breaking bread with, Tom’s farcical penitence—you’re either with him or you’re against him, folks—you’re subject to the full force of A History of Violence’s masterful broadside on redemption’s pervasive and peculiar evil.