In a sleepy American town, Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is a great family man. Married to a gorgeous wife (Maria Bello) and father to two children, Tom earns a living at the local diner. The townspeople know him for his friendly and calm demeanour behind the counter. It may not seem like much to some of us, but Tom is living the perfect small town existenz.
With things running so smoothly, it’s only a matter of time before trouble comes strolling into town. Trouble takes on the form of two vicious murders on the run from the law. In the opening scene, these men are leaving a motel office. The man behind the counter has been shot, a fact revealed with a beautiful panning shot. One of the crooks is ready to leave the scene when he realizes there is a small child hiding in the back office. The man crouches down and presses his index finger to his sleep, commanding the child to remain silent. After a few moments of tension, the man aims his pistol towards the child. Clearly, this duo is comprised of the worst kind of outlaws, They are ready to shoot first and deal with the consequences later.
None of this matters to our friendly little town, and certainly not to Tom Stall. Unfortunately, everything Tom worked for, everything he cherishes and holds dear gets a severe reality check. In fact, this reality check is occurs when Tom’s own reality will crash the wall of lies he had built to shelter his loved ones.
Our two thugs on the run make a late night appearance just as Tom and the others are closing shop. The criminals demand for money while holding the restaurant hostage. In the heat of the moment, Tom, with stunning precision and speed overpowers the thugs, gunning both down with their own firearms. All’s well that ends well it would seem. The hostages, Tom and his colleagues are all safe and sound and the money is still there. Word of this heroic exploit spreads like wildfire, in no small part to the media attention. Tom is a quiet man however, rather reserved when in front of others, and he appears a little stiff when interviewed by the media or the authorities. When he speaks, the phrases are short and simple. He’d much prefer to be left alone with his family peacefully as if nothing had ever happened, to return to life as it was before the incident and not be the center of attention. He will soon discover that such a wish is completely unattainable.
Just as things appear to be slowing down a little bit, a strange man dressed in black (Ed Harris) with shades enters the diner one day and orders a coffee at the counter. He is a sinister looking character who clearly who clearly came into the restaurant with a purpose (other than to get a coffee). This man in black seems to be familiar with Tom, continuously making comments and even referring to him as ‘Joey’. Tom innocently rebukes these ramblings and the claim that he is someone other than Tom and that he had a life in Philadelphia. The strange man even accuses Tom of having caused the horrible scar on his left eye. If this encounter wasn’t enough, the mysterious visitor then proceeds to hound Tom’s wide Edie (Maria Bello) while at the shopping mall with their young daughter. He keeps insisting that Tom is not who he claims to be and has dangerous underground connections in Philadelphia. Edie refuses to believe these accusations, but if there ever was a moment when a seed of doubt planted itself in her mind, then that doubt shifts to outright shock and horror the day the Jack and his small band of gangsters confront Tom on his front lawn. With his family in grave danger, Tom, now definitely Joy, once again comes to the rescue, getting his son out of the way while completely wasting the opposition, turning his front lawn into a complete dead zone. While his family is probably grateful to be alive, they are taken aback by this stunning revelation. Tom isn’t Tom. He doesn’t come from where he said he did, he didn’t work where he said he did, etc. He isn’t at all who he said he was, his identity was a lie, which in turn makes his family’s existence a lie as well. They are, for better or worse, pieces of a fabricated life. They are, by extension, what Joey chose to become when he fled the gangster life in Philadelphia.
Earlier in this marathon I analysed (if I may be so foolish to use the term) M.Butterfly and mildly criticised that film for lacking any weighty Cronenberg-esque style and tone. It was a period piece romance more than anything else. With that in mind, it may be tempting to toss a similar criticism regarding A History of Violence: it’s just a family drama. No monsters, homo-eroticism or fantastic physical transformations here. Nonetheless, the film is deceptively simple. Joey’s intentional decision to leave his former life behind, as well as any trace of his former attitude and general approach towards life, ultimately has significant repercussions on his family when they learn the ugly truth. But there is something to be said about this situation. Setting aside momentarily the problematic question of self-identity of Edie and the children (although that is a huge problem), what would it mean for them to never accept Joey? If Tom was Tom, completely separate from Joey, then Joey is not the children’s father nor Edie’s husband. But is this actually the case? Is Tom Stall dead from the moment his family learns of the man’s history? These are delicate questions, ones that people like you and I may face on a normal. Granted, the example thrown into the ring by the film is very cinematically dramatic and extreme, but any friend or relative can reveal a secret about something they did or said in the past. Whether the revelation concerns you directly or not, it can still impact your perception of that friend or relative, even if it is for a short period of time. Eventually, time may heal those feelings and thoughts, inviting you to accept that person for who they are, strengths, weaknesses and all that jazz. ‘Water under the bridge’ as they say. In other cases, the revelation may indeed bring upon a change in perception of that individual that is too great for it to ever be tossed ‘under the bridge’. The new bit of information provokes a dramatic shift in attitude that carries over into the relationship, forever changing it and even possibly cutting it short.
So Cronenberg tackles the notion of identity, but in a very humanistic fashion. Is the family incorrect in rejecting the real Tom at first? I don’t think so. After all, it isn’t as if he had been hiding anything pleasant about his past. It turns out that he was a wild gangster, particularly adept at kicking ass. That’s a tough pill to swallow for his young family. Nonetheless, the fact of the matter is that Joey wanted to have a safe and honest life. A good life with a loving family, a family he could give all his care to. Is that too much to ask for? Ah, circumstances, circumstances…
There is the matter of violence, how it is dealt, when it is dealt and its tight grip on the human character. Joey thought he had escaped his violent past (and he had, if only temporarily). He moves to a quiet town where his gangster skills aren’t required and adopts some radically different social skills. The moment the two thugs from the beginning arrive at the diner is a crucial one for Joey for more reasons than one. The customers and other colleagues may be hoping that, with the money in their hands, the hoodlums will leave everyone in peace. I bet Joey reads the situation differently. Not only can he prevent these punks from causing serious damage, but he should prevent them from even leaving the establishment. The crooks are a couple of real wild beasts who can and most likely will start busting caps at the slightest sign of trouble, or just for the heck of it even. Joey sees a bit of his former self in these two hooligans. He risks revealing his dark secrets by rescuing friends and customers. His own history of violence helped him in the short run, but comes back to bite him eventually. It’s a classic tale of someone’s inability to escape their past no matter how hard he or she tries. The sins he committed in the past return to eventually punish him. He doesn’t die physically for his mistakes, but his ideal version of himself, his fabricated version of himself is buried six feet under the ground by the end of the film. The closing moments of the movie are arguably the best. After laying to waste his former gang friends (including his own brother, in a rare action sequence in a Cronenberg movie), Joey returns ‘home’ where his family is having dinner at the kitchen table. Not a word is spoken. Some food is passed around and the look on Edie’s and Joey’s faces can be described in a million words: Sadness, regret, shame, hope, forgiveness perhaps… I’d go so far as to say it’s one of the best acted and directed scenes in any Cronenberg film. I’m gushing, but allow me to indulge, if only for a moment.
There is a good chance Edie will forgive him and accept him for who he really is: Joey with a Tom Stall attitude. She herself gives in to Joey’s wilder side, albeit briefly, when they have rabid sex on the staircase shortly after the revelation scene. It’s a difficult scene to digest. Why is it happening? Isn’t she repulsed by Joey’s true identity? How could she give in to this act? Edie’s human after all. She may be a woman (with all the virtuous qualities associated with it), but she is a human being who can let go and allow the darker instincts to take over. For all we know, Edie may have fantasized about Tom being big bad Joey the moment a seed of doubt was planted in her mind. May she began fantasizing about Tom in different fashion after learning her husband had given the smack down to a couple of criminals. I do not ask the following question in a derogatory way, I can assure you, but why shouldn’t she find that sexy? The opposite question is of course ‘why should she?’, I realize that, but I sincerely don’t think the second question applies here. The movie deals with violence in many ways, most of which are quite subtle. The sex scene plays out like a rape, which is disgusting of course, but in the context of the film and in the context of what Joey and Edie may be (and probably are) feeling and thinking, it’s kind of fits the occasion. The emotions running through each of their bodies are particularly intense. This rush of emotions in turn produces extreme reactions. The sex may be her first sign of accepting Joey as her real husband. Even for the briefest of moments, she is giving in to a kind of violent act, just like their son gave into a violent act at school when he stood up to his bully nemesis. These acts of violence are not mistakes. They are instincts, decisions made in a split second that, for the shortest of moments perhaps, feel like the right one. Should their son have sunk as low as the bully to teach him a lesson? Probably not. When Joey and Edie have sex on the staircase, does it feel a little messed up? You bet. Within the emotional and psychological context of those two situations, the sex and the fight at school, the reactions feel right for the characters as they occur. They may not feel right when the acts are over and done with, but definitely as they happen. It’s difficult to accept at moments, but Cronenberg, like a scanner of human behaviour, does a fine job of tapping into this darker side in all of us. Violence and identity are issues that the director’s movies have explored before, but A History ofViolence does it in a superbly subtle way that impresses me every time.
While the movie may come across as atypical Cronenberg material upon first glance, it’s difficult to imagine anyone other than himself responsible for the film. He has a history of making some violent films, but I for one wouldn’t want him to change that history for a second.