David Cronenberg | 1hr 36min
Even after we see the true violent colours of diner owner Tom Stall, we still might struggle to believe the truth. Gangster Joey Cusack is buried so deep in his consciousness that even he might consider it a dream of a past life, surfacing only when he finds himself in high pressure situations. But even when he isn’t taking lives, that viciousness is there. It explodes when Tom engages in violent sex with his wife, when he slaps his son, Jack, in a moment of anger, and then when Jack goes to school and savagely beats up his bully. A History of Violence does not aim for the same visceral disgust as previous David Cronenberg films, and yet in its psychological interrogations of humanity’s ravenous craving for self-destruction we still find traces of the director known for his body horror.
It opens with a four-minute tracking shot along the outside of a motel where two thugs, Leland and William, eliminate its owners with chilling nonchalance. Thanks to Cronenberg’s reserved, distant camera, we barely even register it happening at first. Our discovery of the blood-streaked office plays out with equal detachment, treating the bodies as if they are simply part of the furniture. For Cronenberg, they might as well be. The title A History of Violence may refer to Tom’s hidden past, but it also holds implications regarding the merciless foundations of our very society, its brutal inclinations being passed from one generation to next like DNA. That is certainly the case when we see how easily Jack embraces force as means to solve his problems after seeing his father use it, but in the contentious relationship between Tom and his estranged brother, Richie, Cronenberg also calls back to the very first instance of violence record in the Bible – the murder of Abel by his own brother, Cain.
Through this approach to allegorical storytelling, Cronenberg imbues his fascination with carnal flesh with spiritual significance. Joey describes his transformation into Tom as a process which took several years of his life, almost like Christ’s own self-exile into the desert. Later when he must make that change again, he kneels in front of a lake and washes himself in the water, as if performing a ritualistic baptism that will see him reborn again as meek, mild-mannered Tom.
Capturing these contradictory facets of a single man’s identity is no easy feat of acting, and yet watching Viggo Mortensen shift between both modes is like seeing a switch flip on and off, instinctually moving from passivity into fierce action. It is a duality that Cronenberg deftly builds into the form of his narrative as well, playing out submissive scenes of harassment, sex, and family time, before turning them on their head later by revealing the violent versions of each that Joey is far more familiar with.
Though the character of Richie Cusack has been built towards through the film, it isn’t until we meet him in the final act and witness William Hurt’s menacingly courteous portrayal that we fully understand the dark past that Joey has been trying to suppress. This is a man who represents every sin Joey has ever committed and tried to forget. Though Richie casually nicknames his brother “Bro-ham” he also delivers his dialogue with an unblinking, penetrating gaze, bringing to light Joey’s violence which, whether he likes it or not, has afforded him his own survival.
The foundation of violence upon which Tom’s American Dream is built is not one that can easily be shied away from once it is exposed. Cronenberg skilfully stages A History of Violence’s final scene within a terse silence, bringing Tom back home to a wordless family dinner right after killing his brother. Whatever return to ordinary life he was hoping for seems preposterous now given its jarring contrast with what came immediately before. Life may return to some semblance of normality, but the shadow of violence is there to stay, hanging over a family that will very likely continue to keep visiting the sins of its father upon his children.
A History of Violence is currently streaming on Stan, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.