Monday, March 13, 2006

Cronenberg's A History of Violence

Desensitisation to violence, anyone? I’m talking about movie audiences laughing with much gusto at violent scenes. It’s understandable to an extent I suppose when the violence is actually played for laughs (though I’m not too comfortable with that sort of thing anyway). And stretching it a bit, I could even see why some people giggled at the scene in Pulp Fiction where Marcellus Wallace shoots his rapist in the genitals. Tarantino didn’t give that scene a humorous treatment at all, but I imagine there might have been Beavises and Buttheads in the audience going “Whoa, right in the nads! Heh heh. Heh.”

But when there’s nothing inherently funny about either the premise of a scene or its execution? When th
e 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.

Some links:

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 film

And an interesting conversation between Cronenberg and Salman Rushdie.


  1. reminds me of another movie i saw many years ago called Shallow Grave. Brit film with relatively unknown actors. Good film. same thing - complete transformation of one of the characters over the course of the movie.
    What about the opposite? There was that classic french movie called 'Wages of Fear' where this character who acts like an aggressive, tough guy at the beginning of the movie gradually becomes (not quite but close enough) a quivering coward towards the end.

  2. It's fascinating, the allure of violence. You only have to look at the viewership statistics of websites like and Ogreish to comprehend.

  3. One of the nasty thing about clinical psychosis is that 95 per cent of victims (be it alzhemiers or schizophrenia) turn violent. Lunatics are rarely harmless.

    I'm afraid an affinity to violence is coded into us at the genetic level. Ever seen apes or monkeys resolving disputes peacefully?

    While we retain a tenuous grip on rationality, we can sort of keep it under control. Very, very tenuously.


  4. "eeewww"

    (To the audience at this Delhi multiplex)

  5. Portnoy: there was a one-second shot of the knife and fork as the kid placed them on the table - so maybe something was intended there. But some of the other reviews I've read seem to think the film ends on a note of hope for the future. So could be that was just my perspective.

    Anonymous: have seen Shallow Grave, though I don't remember it all that well now. (One of those "relatively unknown" actors was the young Ewan McGregor btw!) Also Wages of Fear, in which Yves Montand played the tough guy who disintegrates in the end - which was made more effective by the fact that the actor had a macho-man image at the time.

    But Mortensen's character in this film doesn't undergo anything like a complete transformation - it's just that we see a side to him that the first 20 minutes never suggested.

  6. Even in the screening I went to, the audiences laughed at many scenes of violence. While it is easy to see that the audience reaction was what cronenberg intended but I don't know why he did it. It took away some of the tension that he manages to build up in the beginning. If the idea was to be self-reflexive and criticise the culture of denial of violent instincts, I doubt many audiences got the message.

    One very disturbing essay on violence in cinema is Funny Games by Michael Haneke. This film will change, at least it did for me, the way you look at the violence in cinema. The two torturers even call themselves "beavis and butthead" in the movie! perhaps the same "desensitised" viewers that you found in PVR.

    And that scene in Pulp Fiction was funny. And that "going medieval on his ass"...that was one funny dialogue ;)

  7. Alok: I didn't think Cronenberg intended that audience reaction at all. I thought the violence was filmed in a way that was meant to cringe-induce.

  8. In the beginning yes cetainly. i don't think any one would have laughed at the shooting of the little kid in the prologue. but when the hero and his son "get into their character", as Jules would say, the film becomes a parody and I think that was what cronenberg was trying to achieve, deliberately. William Hurt acted as if he just walked into this film from some other regular gangster movie.

    and it is here that I thought regular audiences missed the plot and took the whole mayhem in the end as "entertainment", rather a serious comment on the culture of violence.

    some reviews of the film claimed that the film "implicates" the audiences in the way they treat violence casually. I think the audiences were a little too smart or perhaps a little too dumb for that.

  9. "some reviews of the film claimed that the film 'implicates' the audiences in the way they treat violence casually. I think the audiences were a little too smart or perhaps a little too dumb for that"

    Ha ha, well put!

  10. I actually liked The History of Violence and this was when I didn't even see the movie in English. No idea why people laugh at violence. I remember when I saw Kill Bill in the theatres, people around me kept laughing all the time. It was seriously weird.
    I'm not too sure why William Hurt was nomited for the Oscars. I mean all the does in the movie is..umm..die?
    Also loved the juxtaposed sex scenes. One of the few movies where I can say that the sex scenes were not redundant.

  11. The audience at the cinema where I saw it (in Barbados) reacted with enthusiastic laughter as well (which disturbed me far more than the film itself did), and were audibly disappointed at the anti-climactic ending (which they rationalised as being a set-up for a sequel). Overall, it was a highly depressing movie-going experience for me. And I thought that William Hurt's performance had to be some sort of intentional (bad) joke, because it made no sense otherwise.

  12. Amitabh Bachchan in Mukul Anand's Hum, plays a family man with a violent past. He lives in a village, in anonymity. And every body thinks he's a nice guy. His two brothers think he's too nice for the times. He abhors violence. And then, past catches up with him. And his own family is surprised to see the violent side of the man. Younger brothers start respecting him one other reason. And the family beats the baddies in the end.

  13. Have you seen "Crash"? Not the crap-fest that won the Oscar, but the earlier one by Cronenberg. Now that's one helluva movie.