Tom Jennings applauds the success of A History of Violence in linking the attractions of action cinema to ideologies of control and conquest by force.
What A Man’s Gotta Do
Two sleazy mobsters wipe out a motel clerk and maid and their little girl; Edie (Maria Bello) and Tom Stall (Viggo Mortenson) comfort their daughter after her dream of monsters. Ostensibly content community pillars in the Midwest boondocks, the Stalls are quietly stagnating – until the murderers hold up the diner he runs, whereupon Tom promptly despatches them with considerable élan. After the ensuing media spotlight, goons arrive led by Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) who insists to protestations of mistaken identity that Tom is actually notorious Philly hitman Joey Cusack. Meanwhile Jack Stall (Ashton Holmes) has trouble with highschool hardnuts, but inspired by his dad’s antics discovers his own vicious streak and beats up the bullies. The town sheriff is suspicious about Tom, but Edie (a bigshot lawyer) pulls rank and covers for him. Fogarty becomes increasingly threatening until Tom kills the made-men in a blur of kung-fu gunplay, also involving Jack. After bruisingly passionate sex with Edie, Tom journeys east into his past, and kills big boss Richie Cusack (William Hurt). He returns to the family, but things will never be the same…
Cronenberg compulsively blurs boundaries of fantasy and reality in his surreal science fiction and shocking tales of horror, gore and mutant depravity, often mobilising machines as metaphors for aspects of experience we prefer to overlook. This time the technology of cinematic representation itself – Hollywood storytelling strategies and the ways these smuggle ideology into audiences – takes centre stage. A History of Violence blends visions of small-town utopia with the more overtly masculinist fantasies of security in a hostile world of the Western and crime and action thrillers. Corny comic characters and stock dialogue from these genres stretch the ironic limits of pastiche – but the quality of acting and careful construction of this exemplary postmodern film carry it off. The director juggles multiple levels of interpretation and significance in calculating, equating and integrating symbolic and physical violence – unflinchingly laying bare the weighty aftermaths for the characters, the fascination for viewers, and the implications for personal biography and redemption all the way to historical allegory and the general body politic.
Systematically deconstructing the cinematic language of ordinary maleness and respectable gender relations and roles, all that survives of the classic nuclear ‘family romance’ is superficial collusion in hiding dark secrets. The ‘feminisation’ of men in post-industrial service sectors, as women become more professionally dominant in the public sphere, is juxtaposed with growing female assertiveness in personal relations and the complexities of dominance and submissiveness in adult love. Once Tom begins to vent “Dirty Harry” tendencies, the spouses initiate and respond to both sexual and nonsexual aggression with ambivalent arousal and disgust that damages trust. Meanwhile the cosy reproduction of masculinity and femininity is disrupted as the children watch their parents meet external evils with their own suppressed demons – the girl seeing through the fairy tale that “there are no such things as monsters”; and the wisecracking adolescent nerd pragmatically kickstarting manhood, first against the bullies then by saving his dad.
The storyline works simultaneously as conventional narrative and macho fantasy, destabilising and questioning happy endings and neat resolutions. Everyone and everything changes due to the ‘return of the repressed’ – whether violent action or imagination, desire, ‘manly’ strength and ‘womanly’ weakness, or other brutal truths of past and present. In the conventional narrative, traditional complacencies are thoroughly trashed – of the main character, his happy family and the idealised small town community as well as the integrity of ‘external’ forces such as official hierarchies and the outsider drama of organised crime. Likewise, as dream or fantasy, the attempted wish-fulfilments of pleasure and certainty at the individual level inevitably self-destruct, since the inconvenient realities of impulse and excess, bodily intransigence and social conflict refuse to be denied – not least from their uncomfortable proximity to what makes life worth living compared to the cloying, static boredom of perfection.
Furthermore, the spiritual overtones hint at wider historical and philosophical dreams and fantasies. The audience’s relationship to violence in the media (and especially American cinema) as innocent entertainment is no longer straightforward – and, extending further, the political roles of national, societal and religious mythologies in solving conflict and legitimising authority are exposed as inadequate and dishonest. Cronenberg’s key theme comes across more strongly than ever, despite A History of Violence’s mainstream appeal and big-budget glossiness. This is that extraordinary reserves of psychological work must be devoted over a lifetime (thus being diverted from more constructive pursuits) to maintaining a classically ‘scientific’ European type of self-image – a coherent, conscious, voluntarily controlled and consistent rationality – in the face of the absurdities of the unconscious, the incorrigible sensuality and/or abjection of flesh and the general horrors of human ‘civilisation’.
Once the delusions they’ve built their identities around dissolve, the pathos of the family’s disorientation shows that isolated heroes solve nothing. The American Dream leaves its banal representatives stalled in no-man’s land, where banishing monsters to nightmares leaves them unable to face real ones except by creating their own. The film weaves together umpteen of the ramifications without wishing away their intransigence, yet still captivates viewers. Independent cinema’s usual depressive alienation, pretentious middle class angst or fashionable nihilism are avoided, and no magnificently sentimental denouement or fatal gesture lets us (or the status quo) off the hook. Sadly, Cronenberg’s existentialist detachment preempts solutions by individualising the problem and concealing its crucially social origins in the mists of time. Nevertheless the conclusion is inescapable that only genuinely mutual and honestly collective effort will allow the family (or society) to survive and grow together, rather than violently splitting apart.
Film review published in Freedom, Vol. 66, No. 21, October 2005.
For other essays and reviews by Tom Jennings, see: