Dir. David Cronenberg. Starring Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris
It’s almost too bad that A History of Violence isn’t a French movie about a reformed mobster from the tough streets of Marseille who escapes to the Massif Central and starts a family, because then the title would make a little more sense. In English, the term “history” is a little big. In French, the title might presumably be Une histoire de violence, or “A Story of Violence.” That’s a much more precise synopsis of what happens in this movie, although I can appreciate why it has a different name in English: English-language movies tend to use “story” as shorthand for “Biblical,” and while Viggo Mortensen lays down some Biblical beatdowns in this film, we’re not exactly connecting with Moses here.
A History of Violence spoke two hypotheses to me.
- Violence is an effective problem-solver.
- Repetition creates identity.
1 – Tom Stall is closing up his family diner for the night when two men come in. We recognize them as the people who kill two adults and a child in cold blood at a motel during the credits. (We don’t actually see them kill anyone, but we see the bloody corpses of the adults and hear the sound of another man’s gun go off when he was pointing it at the child.) What looks at first to be a stickup quickly devolves as it becomes clear that the two men mean to rape one of Tom’s employees and kill the bunch – including a couple of timewarped teens from the ’50s drinking a milkshake out of the same glass. Tom, holding the hard glass coffee pitcher, assesses the situation. In seconds, he has killed both of the drifters. One of them is downed by the coffee pitcher, which explodes in his face; just thinking about how much force that would take makes my temples hurt. The other, even though Tom has a knife in his foot from the coffee-pitchered man, is shot dead and flies through the glass of his front door. It’s clear that Tom is not pleased with his status as local hero (who makes it onto national news). Tom has actually been as gentle as a kitten with his family. He makes love (a phrase which, in this instance, is unironic) with his wife, Edie (Maria Bello); there’s still enough spice in their life for her to put on a generic cheerleader outfit in the most Indiana foreplay ever put on screen in a conventional theater. He is affectionate with his preschool daughter, and seems to have a good relationship with his teenage son, Jack (Ashton Holmes). At breakfast one morning, he picks up the cereal box to pour some for Jack; Jack rebuffs him, not unkindly but clearly. He’s not a little kid who needs his dad to pour the cereal for him, and he’s right, but we can see in Tom’s face and gestures that his love language is service. He wants to do things for people which will make their lives a little easier. In an unusual way, his unbelievably violent – and unbelievably effective – double kills in the diner are evidence of that love language.
Since he’s Viggo Mortensen, I give him the benefit of the doubt in this: as Tom, there are soft patches in Mortensen’s acting. Occasionally he will speak and it will sound hollow or cliched or simply off. I had the same sensation watching him as I had watching that fake bird at the end of Blue Velvet; it was pretending to be real, but it was far enough away from being real that I had a hard time not smiling at it with some condescension. Given the events of the film, I like to think that this is a purposeful move from Mortensen and, if so, that’s one of the more brilliant touches in an acting career filled with them.
The rest of the movie follows Tom as he is revealed, action by action, to be Joey Cusack. Joey used to be involved with the criminal underworld in Philadelphia, and a man named Carl Fogarty (Harris) shows up as Joey’s Ghost of Christmas Past. The sight in his left eye is gone, and there are canals of scars on that side of his face; the first time we see him they look to be classic gangster threatening, but we find out that those are evidence of Joey’s handiwork. He did it with barbed wire. (Fogarty has a great question for Edie at one point which, given his history with Tom/Joey, is a reasonable one: “How come he’s so good at killing people?”) With some surprising help from Jack, Carl and his two men are dispatched. And not long after, Joey takes the long drive to Philadelphia, where he manages – despite nearly being garroted! – to kill a house full of hitmen. The final casualty of that slaughter is Richie Cusack (William Hurt), his brother, who summoned him to Philadelphia in the first place.
Violence works, in other words. Joey is a brilliant hand-to-hand combatant, relentlessly clever, and willing to commit to stunning level of physical force; I’m not likely to forget how he smashes one man’s nose up into his brain, for example. And regardless of whether or not he wants to kill people, he is constantly placed in positions where he must either kill or be killed. There is not a peaceful solution to be had in any of the situations where Joey uses the sword, and so if he wants to stay alive, he must end the lives of others.
Joey is not the only one who finds that violence is an effective solution to his problems. Jack, who has been getting a hard time from a jock jerk at school, eventually decides to fix the problem. Jack is taking a mean-spirited harangue from the other kid, who asks how his hero dad could be proud of Jack. It doesn’t end well. The jerk’s sidekick takes a colossal shot to the groin; the jerk himself gets put in the hospital. (Tom is horrified when he finds out. He tells Jack that they don’t solve problems by hitting other people, though Jack is unimpressed: “No, in this family we shoot them!” This ends with Tom solving the problem by slapping Jack across the face.) Neither one of them is likely to bother Jack again. Not long after, Jack saves his father’s life by blowing out most of Fogarty’s torso with a shotgun.
The flip side, of course, is that violence doesn’t solve the drifters’ problems, or Fogarty’s, or Richie’s, unless you take the geologic view that if you’re dead your problems tend to go away. The film’s answer is that violence as the aggressor is not a problem-solver. Joey has some ideas about self-defense which align neatly, if not racially, with Malcolm X’s. From the “Make It Plain” speech:
If a dog is biting a black man, the black man should kill the dog, whether the dog is a police dog or a hound dog or any kind of dog. If a dog is fixed on a black man when that black man is doing nothing but trying to take advantage of what the government says is supposed to be his, then that black man should kill that dog or any two-legged dog who sics the dog on him.
This is essentially the plot of the film: Joey (with a little help from Jack) kills Richie’s dogs and then kills Richie, who set the dogs on him in the first place.
A History of Violence, though its plot makes it clear that violence is a reasonable solution to extraordinary problems, hardly advocates for using violence willy-nilly. Tom loses his family as he becomes Joey. Edie, for one, feels betrayed by her husband’s secret and is a little afraid of this unearthed skill in killing people. In one scene which is frankly hard to watch, Joey grabs Edie by her ankles as she’s going up the stairs and have what appears to be consensual but very severe, fangs and claws out sex. After they finish, Joey looks like he thinks he might have turned her around, but Edie marches upstairs, away from him and his strung-out body on the stairs. At the end of the film, once Joey has come back from Philadelphia with his problems solved, his son passes him the meatloaf at dinner. Edie, on the other hand, looks significantly less trusting. The film indulges in this confusion with the same headlong fascination which it has for the violence, leaving with the knowledge of an emotional cold war to succeed it.
2 – Tom Stall is well named. Tom is a name with significantly less joie de vivre than Joey and far more solidity. As for Stall, that has multiple attractive meanings. Is it the verb, the idea of being stuck and unable to move forward? Or is it like the noun, where fodder animals wait for slaughter? Or is it like that other noun, where one assumes total privacy? All of them have some resonance here, each of them fittingly symbolic.
One of the reasons that Tom and Edie’s marriage is doomed to divorce is because I don’t think she’ll know what to call him. Joey is an epithet for her, but it is also his real name. Is she going to call him by the name she met him under or by the name he was born with? Both names are equally right once he begins to return to the Joey persona. Tom is still there in pieces – sex with Edie, marginal parenting, trying to protect his family – but Joey is there too, in much greater proportion. I think it’s worth noting that he can’t get the pickup truck which has been broken down for some time to start again until he’s Joey; that was outside Tom’s power. And when he comes home from Philadelphia, no one speaks to him or says his name. How can they? Is he supposed to be Tom in that moment, with all of his family business settled and thus no need of Joey? Or has Joey become the key figure whose actions have erased the possibility of Tom? What is abundantly clear is that to say that one is a stand-in for another, or that one is more true than another, or that one can (cringe) be called “the real identity” is false. Tom and Joey are both true people, both with similar claims for existence. Supremacy is for this argument, as it was in the killing, the endgame.