But when there’s nothing inherently funny about either the premise of a scene or its execution? When the violence is intended to make you flinch, horrify you, make you see what terrible things guns are? I was at David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence yesterday. Onscreen, people were being shot at close range, there were brief shots of twitching bodies and blood-spattered heads – and large portions of the crowd in a surprisingly crowded PVR hall were roaring with laughter. It wasn’t nervous laughter, the sort that helps dissipate tension, it was full-throated and full-bellied.
In fact you might even say they were laughing their guts out, which would be an apt expression to use while discussing some of Cronenberg’s earlier films. He has a well-documented interest in the interior workings of both the human mind and the human body, and the latter has taken a gruesomely literal form in films like Shivers (a.k.a. Orgy of the Blood Parasites), Videodrome and eXistenz. This isn’t a director known for abiding by the niceties of commercial filmmaking, which require that certain things – like the internal organs of human bodies – not be depicted on screen.
A History of Violence is relatively mainstream by Cronenberg’s standards, which is one reason it’s made it to Delhi’s multiplexes at all. But it’s still an unsettling film, with more than one scene that will make you shift uncomfortably in your seat.
(Obligatory SPOILER ALERT here. In my view the revelation in question isn’t a crucial one, and it occurs less than two-thirds of the way through anyway. But many people don’t like having key plot elements revealed, and I like to discuss them at length.)
This is the story of Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), a peace-loving family man running a diner in a small Indiana town, who becomes a local hero when he puts out two thugs during a hold-up. But this incident soon leads to Tom’s own violent past catching up with him: it turns out that he was a mobster named Joey Cusack in Philadelphia 20 years earlier, before he reformed and settled down to live the American Dream.
At the heart of this story is a simple question: even with the best intentions, can a man ever really shrug off his past life and settle into a completely new persona? But there’s nothing straightforward or simple about the film’s treatment of this subject. In the first 15-20 minutes we meet Tom and his family, we see that he is a good husband, a good father and a good employer, well-liked by everyone around him. Given all this, when we do find out about the person he once was, how much does it really matter? When his wife is horrified at the thought that the name she and her children have been living with for 20 years is a “false” one – that it wasn’t passed down over the generations but simply chosen, randomly, one day – is she justified? Or is she overreacting (given that she never knew Joey Cusack in the first place; that for all practical purposes the only man she ever knew was Tom Stall)? On the other hand, could there be some truth to the assertion, made by a figure from Tom’s past, that “he’s still the same man, the same Joey – he hasn’t changed”.
A History of Violence isn’t a completely satisfying film – it goes slightly astray in its final 20-25 minutes (with some silliness involving William Hurt in a campy performance that got him an Oscar nomination as supporting actor). But even this last bit begins with a scene that I loved – a shot of Tom/Joey making the long drive to Philadelphia where you get the sense that he is traveling back into his own past, traveling along a route he hasn’t been on in 20 years.
One of the things that’s fascinating about the film’s structure is the gradual escalation of violence within the Stall household as the story progresses. Initially, Tom’s teenage son is a passive victim when he is bullied at high school. But after watching his dad’s heroism he hits back at his own tormentors with such viciousness that we wonder if we are witnessing the uncoiling of a suppressed genetic impulse. (Crucially, we never learn much about Tom’s early life, about how he became a killer, and what led him to change his ways.) Shortly afterwards, there is a confrontation between father and son that the film’s idyllic first 15 minutes never prepared us for – raised voices, culminating in Tom smacking his son across his face (Cronenberg shoots scenes of violence in such a way that it seems aimed at the viewer – which is one reason I was so taken aback by the PVR crowd’s reaction). Later, there’s a disturbing scene where an argument between Tom and his wife ends in brutal sex – with the barest hint that she is aroused by this new side to her husband.
This continuing shift in the film’s tone is very relevant to what the story has to say about our buried natures coming to the surface when circumstances allow them to. At the film’s end, when Tom returns home, his wife and children are sitting stiffly at the dinner table. Eventually his little daughter gets up and lays out the cutlery for him (out of context, this would have been a “cho chweet” moment). The family is whole again but one senses they will never be the same – they’ve been stained not just by the violence of Tom’s past but by knowledge of their own primitive impulses. At this point one isn’t even sure whether it’s a good idea to have all those knives and forks around.
An interview with Cronenberg where he says he intended the film partly as an allegory for the Bush administration’s policy of violence
Jim Emerson on the use of doors as a visual motif in the filmAnd an interesting conversation between Cronenberg and Salman Rushdie.