An average family man in Anytown, USA. Known for subversive science fiction work like ExisTenz, The Fly and Videodrome, this is the last subject fans of David Cronenberg would expect him to tackle. And during the first few scenes of A History of Violence, the story of a simple, small-town guy trying to protect his family from big city bad guys, it does seem like the director has turned over a conventional new leaf.
Viggo Mortensen stars as Tom Stall, a loving father and husband who appears quietly honorable, if a bit passive, as he makes coffee and serves the locals at his family’s restaurant. But when two murderous drifters pick his diner to make their next score, a new Tom Stall emerges – and this Tom Stall is anything but passive.
Without a flinch, Tom makes efficient, bloody work of the would-be killers and winds up becoming the town hero, with television vans and newspaper reporters camped outside his house.
Unfortunately, the attention of the press also brings with it the attention of some Philadelphia mobsters. They insist that Tom is really a former hit-man named Joey who fled Philly 20 years earlier. Tom flatly denies the accusation, but as the gangsters put more pressure on Tom and his family, his wife (Maria Bello) begins to suspect that the man she married may indeed be keeping some long-held secrets.
In just about any other director’s hands, this premise would lead to a standard film-noir thriller. But David Cronenberg is not any other director, and it quickly becomes clear that he isn’t interested in merely entertaining us.
Like the semi-hokey persona of Tom Stall, every element (including a Mayberryish sub-plot involving Tom’s son and bully) means much more than it appears to on the surface, starting with Tom’s heroic act which is shown in shockingly gruesome detail.
Cronenberg makes the utmost use of his R rating in a way that harkens back to films of the late seventies—it’s a raw, pummeling, Taxi Driver kind of R, which is a very different thing from the recent choreographed, cutesy, Kill Bill kind of R. By allowing realistic carnage to intrude in the life of this quiet, loving family, Cronenberg accomplishes something that’s seemingly all-but-impossible in an era of CSI on primetime: he makes us shudder even when the scummiest low-life meets a well-deserved death.
However, at some points Cronenberg pushes the envelope too far. Where one could argue that his first hard pornographic scene reveals something crucial about the kind of man and husband Tom Stall is, the second simply feels cheap and, to any woman in the room, laughably unrealistic.
Still, even those predisposed to reject a film based on the number of objectionable scenes it contains will find it difficult to dismiss this one. Unlike the recent Lord of War—a movie featuring lots of violence ostensibly to make the point that it’s against violence—A History of Violence, doesn’t deal in platitudes on whether guns are bad or whether killing is ever warranted.
This movie already knows the answer to those questions and dismisses them as childish. Instead, it asks much more difficult, thoughtful questions about necessary brutality and man’s striving toward a higher nature. Through Tom, Cronenberg weighs the cost of playing the executioner. To keep order, to protect loved ones, someone must do it. But what if that person starts to enjoy doing it?
Cronenberg melds all aspects of our American understanding of violence into a sort of meditation—the rush we feel when Eastwood deals the blow the bad guy has coming; the cheap spectacle we enjoy watching Schwarzenegger on the rampage; and the justifiable desire we have to protect ourselves by force.
As we are drawn deeper into Tom Stall’s life and background, he embodies each one, allowing the audience to indulge the range of satisfaction bloodshed can offer. But Cronenberg also wants us to know that it costs something.
Like David who killed at God’s will but was subsequently barred from building the temple, Tom does what he must but may end up paying a spiritual price for it.
There’s a moment in A History of Violence when, covered in blood, Tom turns to his estranged son with a look on his face that could be fierce love or could be merely fierce. For a moment, we’re not sure whether we want the son to embrace Tom or run away from him.
Watching Cronenberg’s visceral style at work in this film feels much the same.
In the end, you’re not sure what point of view Cronenberg has presented, but, unlike most current filmmakers, you’re certain he has one worth reflecting upon.