A History of Violence – David Cronenberg – [SPOILERS] I feel pretty mixed about this film, quite likely because I have already seen it a long time ago-in a context not conducive to absorbed immersion (drinking and talking was a distracting happily eclipsed concentration). Therefore, perhaps said unsatisfactory inaugural viewing has somewhat detracted from the story’s impact. Viggo Mortensen plays a seemingly regular ‘family man’, Tom Stall,in quiet America. The apparent normality of his existence is disrupted by the appearance of two criminals who attempt to hold up the diner he works at. Without warning ol’ Tom Stall (‘regular joe’/ ‘honest servin’ American’) whips out the unexpected violent capabilities of a professional hitman, swiftly dispatching with the criminal threat and becoming a local hero. Which, as the plot inevitably thickens, prompts the threatening memories of a hidden past to unravel the identity of Tom Stall. Viggo Mortensen is undeniably strong, as he usually is in central performances. Michelle Williams, who plays his wife, also delivers a convincing and palpably harrowing turn.
The problem I think I had with the film were perhaps also hallmarks of its mastery, and, due to my lack of patience – with a story I half remembered – were duly overlooked in their potential intelligence. I felt Howard Shore’s soundtrack to be intrusively sentimental, overbearing a film which was perhaps better suited to letting nuanced performances breathe.
However, having said that-I feel that so much of the film could be understood as a deconstruction of a lot of ‘Americana’ and family ideals. We have the troubled son at college, locker room bullying from jocks and the visceral paroxysm of violence with which the bullied finally snaps. Different levels and understandings of violence bristle alongside each other: the criminals with which the film begins nearly collide in a road accident with the arrogant jocks-who soon realizing, on giving the middle finger in adolescent rebellion, that they are faced with a different league of alpha male. The two criminals in the red truck stare with unmoved hostility at the pathetic ‘middle finger salute’, wordlessly reducing the charade to embarrassing infantilism – they drive off. These criminals then meet with Tom (or Joey, with a criminal history from Philadelphia…as is soon revealed), who greets their attempted hold up at the diner with stoic professionalism and an unflinchingly athletic commitment to, well, killing.
In many ways much of the intrusive soundtrack and heavy handed establishing of relationships (one particular scene, in which Michelle Williams slips into a cheeky cheerleading outfit to treat her husband to the teenage fantasy they never shared) is probably developing the obvious sense of artifice at the heart of Tom’s role. This ‘family’ construct is lifted from a bad film, the fantasy is a recycled pornographic cliché and the son’s high school anguish is a parody of every American teen drama that features bullies pushing nerds up against lockers. A friend of mine (who knows the film a tad better) also suggested the importance of subverting tropes of noir.
Perhaps one of the strongest dramatic sequences is when we witness Tom and his wife (Edie Stall), in powerful contrast to the earlier ‘dress up’ sex, grapple on the staircase. In a moment in which Edie realizes her complicit vulnerability/criminal culpability with Tom, and, as her knowledge of him is nightmarishly wrenched from trust and familiarity: they have uncomfortably physical sex. Is this Edie enacting a deeply entrenched American fantasy? Her husband now mystified as the cinematic outcast, the gun-toting enigma – an outlaw, a ‘wanted man’…a dangerous man, a killer. Does this sequence confront and dispel that mythical desire with a bruising reality? Or, now both characters have been exposed and the illusion of ‘knowing each other’ no longer exists is this sex the painful realization, the clashing of real and estranged bodies? Or is it more simply a quick escape for both of them – another kind of violence – the obliteration of the orgasm? I feel there is probably a lot more to be found /appreciated in this film-that, for whatever reason was not drawing me in. Perhaps next time, I shall return, less encumbered by the shadow of ‘not really watching/liking it’ the first time round and encouraged by my intrigued ambivalence of the second viewing …who knows. 7/10