A History of Violence, 2005. Directed by David Cronenberg. Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, William Hurt, Ashton Holmes, Stephen McHattie.

A Small Word of Warning: It is almost impossible to discuss, much less defend this movie without giving away certain plot points that should probably stay secret to first-time viewers. Consider this a warning.

Synopsis: Tom Stall is the owner of a diner in small Millbrook, Indiana. One night, a pair of drifters enter his diner with mayhem on their minds. These men are killers, no doubt about it. In a flurry of action, Tom smashes one of the men in the face with a coffee pot, seizes his gun, and blows the other through the glass of his front door. Suddenly, Tom is a hero. Unfortunately for Tom, no good deed goes unpunished. Soon after, a group of bad men show up in Tom's diner, convinced that Tom is someone else, a gangster with whom they have unfinished business...

Craft: Whatever one ultimately takes from the film, the craft on display in A History of Violence is as formidable as anything found in Cronenberg's filmography. The movie LOOKS great. Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky adds to his already impressive collaboration with the director, and the performances--especially Maria Bello and Ed Harris--are note perfect. One can look at the film only as a thriller and enjoy it--something along the lines of 1950s-era programers like, say, The Narrow Margin or Cape Fear. Evident from the first shot, it is expertly made.

Out of Character: So, this is supposed to be an abberation for director David Cronenberg, is it? The film is based on a graphic novel, so it should carry with it the visual and thematic sensibilities of the source text, right? Gone are Cronenberg's icky transformations of mind and body, his twisty-turny narratives where reality is suspect, and in its place is...what? A meditation on violence? A slick revenge thriller? Not from my perspective. I think it's very typical Cronenberg. Cronenberg is a director who never throws anything away and, contrary to all the hubbub about the film being a critique of violence (as suggested by the title), I think it is, rather, a film that examines Cronenberg's specific pet themes in a (not so) sub rosa manner. I think this movie is categorically a film where the blank-faced reality of what we are shown is always suspect. Let me ennumerate the film's many thematic echoes from the director's other films.

Let's start with the setting. Cronenberg's usual settings are cold, clinical, post-modern spaces that might win design contests but you can't imagine anyone living there. Cronenberg's usual characters are very smart, very alienated people. But Cronenberg has used the Norman Rockwell small town America setting before (in The Dead Zone), for similar purposes. This is a classical genre construct, in which the audience is presented a placid "order" which is disrupted or destroyed by an "other" force. That the forces that destroy this Apollonian setting are external and internal is a characteristic of Cronenberg's cinema (the alternate title of Shivers, "They Came From Within," is telling, eh?).

It is suggested in this film that Tom Stall's veneration as a hero "infects" his son, who is shown as a politic coward early in the film, but who lashes out at his personal bete noir bully with a vengeance after his father's example. Cronenberg has examined the notion that rage is contagious from generation to generation before (in The Brood).

The film suggests that the two sex scenes represent the expression of different identities. "Tom Stall" is a caring, almost passive sex partner for his wife--he isn't shown penetrating her, but rather engages in a sixty-nine. His sexuality is accomodating, cooperative, and mutual. "Joey Cusack" is violent, almost a rapist, and his sexual behavior leaves bruises on his wife. Cronenberg has examined the idea that identity--how one views one's self--manifests itself in one's sexuality in the past (in Crash and M. Butterfly, to name two examples). This is, in fact, one of the director's primary thematic pre-occupations. Add to this the possibility that Edie Stall's sexuality is a good deal darker than it seems. The film plays with sexual identities with her character too, in the scenes where she roleplays a horny cheerleader for her husband, and when she is visibly turned on by the darker possibilities that she likes the brute force of "Joey" more than she likes the mutual pleasure offered by "Tom." The film is a thorny set of sexual possibilities.

I've seen lots of interpretations of the final scene and the final shot of the movie, in which Viggo Mortensen sits quietly in front of his family as if he is awaiting judgement, but my take is that it represents a gestalt, in which the "good man" Tom Stall exists in equilibrium with the "bad man" Joey Cusack and the resulting "new" identity is welcomed to the family by the little girl. This, too, is a holdover from previous films: from The Fly, in which Brundlefly attempts to fuse himself with the pregnant Veronica Quaife as a means of creating a singular family unit, and (especially) from Scanners, in which Cameron Vale fuses himself with Daryl Revok at the end of their telepathic duel. This last bears some further comment, because both Scanners and this movie turn on a final duel between brothers in which the older brother is seeking to destroy the younger.

As for what the film is saying about violence...well, given Cronenberg's tendencies, I would suggest that Cronenberg is cataloging violence as yet another external manifestation of identity. The key is in determining what that identity really is, isn't it? Is the character Tom Stall, using violence to defend his home and family? Is he Joey Cusack, a mob enforcer taking vengeance on the enemies from his past? The tenor of the film, and the film's violence depends on the answer, doesn't it? Violence has context, after all. It's simplistic to say that "all violence is bad" or that "violence in self-defense is justified," and I think the movie knows it. As I've said, I think Tom/Joey is something else entirely by the end of the movie.

The most surprising thing to me about the movie is that Cronenberg has used the "hero's journey" archetype the way that he has, and that he's clued the audience into it in the shot when Tom/Joey walks down to the water to wash the blood from his hands. Look at how Cronenberg has framed the shot: low angle, Viggo without his shirt, and the archectural impedimenta of a Greek temple behind him. One can read this as ironic, I suppose--Cronenberg notes on his DVD commentary that the film isn't intended as an ironic film a la Blue Velvet--but I tend to see this as the point where both Tom and Joey cease to exist, replaced by...what? A hero? That's what the iconography suggests, but the film is cagey about this. I've stated what I think the film's final shot means, but I can easily graft any other meaning onto it. The first time I saw the film last year, I was convinced that Cronenberg had followed the "hero's journey" to the conclusion one finds in Beowulf--in which the exercise of violence has put the "hero" beyond the pale, forever apart from his family and community--rather than the end found in The Odyssey, in which the hero is welcomed home by his family. The film leaves open the possibility of both interpretations. It even leaves open the possiblity that both "ends" happen simultaneously. This is a movie where surface impressions hover over impossibly deep chasms.