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A History of Violence

September 1, 2021

[Note: This piece is more of a short essay than a review. As such, it contains spoilers about the movie.]

David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence. What a movie. I love a flick that explores inner, dark impulses like, well, violence. This one is really rather Freudian, as well: violence is a part of all of us, it tells us–and especially a part of men. It’s human nature. We can run from it or pretend it can be eradicated with education or poverty reduction or even with good old-fashioned repression, but if we’re not aware of it it’s likely to catch up with us, and we’ll have to descend into our own psychic depths and confront it if we want to adequately deal with it.

Denying his own violent nature is the project Tom Stall, played by Viggo Mortensen, is working on as the movie begins. We meet him as a gentle and caring husband, father, and local businessman. His wife is still really into him after a couple kids, and everyone else seems to like him too.

But we’ve already been made suspicious of finding comfort in an apparently calm setting. To remind us that there’s violence in the world that can inflict itself even on those of us minding our own business, the opening scene gives us the casual, brutal, and pointless murder by two thugs of three people, including a child, at a motel.

When these same two thugs show up at his diner and seem intent on hurting or killing the people there, Tom’s life gets more complicated. They prove themselves unwilling to be sated by the offer of all the money in the register, so Tom springs into action, channeling an inner Jason Bourne to deftly dispose of the attackers.

Tom is rightly hailed as a hero for his bravery, but even though he killed to protect others, now that this violent side has been revealed, however briefly, it brings on consequences he can’t control.

The first consequence is that his face is now on the news and seen by Philadelphia gangsters who show up in his small town, certain he’s not Tom Stall but actually Joey Cusack, a past criminal associate of theirs.

This middle part of the movie plays out as a well-crafted mystery. Tom is highly convincing at first that he’s not Joey. But little clues begin to put doubt in our minds, and at some point we start to think maybe he really could be this Joey we keep hearing about. He finally unleashes his Jason Bourne abilities for a second time and shows us that his first feat was no fluke. At last he confirms what we already know by now and tells Fogarty he should have killed him back in Philadelphia.

In the meantime, as a second consequence of Tom’s violent outburst, his family has been questioning his identity too and losing faith in him as the perfect husband and father. For example, we’ve seen Tom’s son, Jack, bullied several times by this point in the movie. After learning that his father countered violence with violence, Jack responds to his bullies the same way, going further than he has to and sending them to the hospital. It’s part standing up for himself, part acting out in response to his father, and part, perhaps, finding within himself the same natural talent for violence his father also clearly has.

Tom complicates things further by lecturing Jack that in this family we don’t hit others to solve problems. As if to prove just how hypocritical he is, Tom even smacks him for talking back in the middle of his we-don’t-hit speech.

Despite these mixed messages, it’s Jack who ends up shooting and killing Fogerty and saving Tom’s life.

Tom’s wife, Edie, also reacts strongly to at first suspecting, and then learning for certain, that he has a secret criminal past. She’s understandably angry at being misled by the man she’s created a life with. In fact, we’re not sure she ever gets over her anger by the end of the movie.

But that brings us to another fascinating topic explored by A History of Violence: the connection between violence and sex. There are two sex scenes in the movie. The first is early on, before we have any reason to suspect anything dark going on beneath the surface of idyllic small town life. The sex is loving and “equal.” It begins with roleplay and a cheerleader costume and ends with sixty nine. Everyone seems to enjoy it and to be satisfied. No complaints to be had.

The second sex scene is much different. It comes after Tom’s identity has been revealed and while Edie is quite angry. He pursues her to the stairs, and manhandles her down under him. It starts to look and feel close enough to rape that Tom himself hesitates for just a second, and in that instant Edie grabs him and urges him to continue his ravishment, which he does. It’s primal, animalistic, and exudes passion and lust lacking in the first scene. Afterwards, she’s still mad at him and she storms off. The link between sexual arousal and danger may be messy, but it’s clearly there.

What does A History of Violence say, in the end about these dark impulses? So far we’ve seen that a man can use violence both to protect others and to turn on women. Of course, society can’t–and shouldn’t–stand for men going around killing and ravishing whoever they like whenever they like. As Freud would tell us, civilization requires that we keep our capacity for violence under an appropriate measure of control.

In Tom’s case, running from his violent past clearly didn’t work, so he tries a different (now more Jungian, perhaps?) approach: confronting his dark side. He goes back to his old neighborhood, descending again into the criminal underworld, where he faces his brother–his metaphoric other half, along the lines of Mufasa vs Scar. Like in The Lion King, these two counterparts will be forced to choose one winner through violence. Unlike The Lion King, this time it’s the more sinister brother who is killed.

Having confronted and, we hope, defeated his violent past. Tom returns to his family and sits down to dinner, already in progress. His children signal their somber acceptance of him back into the family. His wife is still undecided. And this is where A History of Violence ends, showing that as inevitable and as human as violence may be within us, that does not mean can fit neatly within our lives or that things can necessarily go back to how they were before. Tom was right to worry that he might be rejected by his family or his community if he revealed that side of him. And the movie ends with that question not entirely answered. Yeah, it really might be one of my favorites.

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