A History of Violence
Produced and distributed by Neil’ Line Cinema
Directed bv David Cronenberg
Screenplay by Josh Olson from the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke

Film titles do not come more portentous than A History of Violence. Entering a Manhattan theater to view David Cronenberg’s latest cinematic lesson, I was half expecting the usher to hand me a notebook, the better to take down its finer points. To my surprise, the film largely conformed to standard Hollywood conventions, however suffused with Cronenberg’s Canadian moralism. The narrative reworks, albeit in modem dress, the hoariest of western clichés—the one about the fellow who gains an unwanted reputation for gunslinging and thereby attracts sidewinders from distant parts bent on testing his deadly mettle.

The reluctant slinger in this case is a man more given to slinging hash than guns. Tom Stall (Viggo Mortenson) is a devoted husband and father living in Millbrook, Indiana, where he owns the local diner. A salt-of-the-earth sort of fellow. Stall seems unremarkable enough at first, his gentle face seems to proclaim him an inoffensive nice guy. But then there are his eyes: They are strangely mournful—or are they haunted? Either way, he is not the kind you would expect to turn violent. Or so he seems, until two thugs force his hand.

We meet these cretinous hombres in the aftermath of a gas station hold-up miles away from Millbrook. They have just gunned down two people, who lie oozing blood on the floor of the station’s convenience store. Then a traumatized seven-year-old girl emerges from the rest room. Seeing her, the younger thug aims his gun at her face and shoots her point blank. We see his gun in extreme closeup, hear it fire, but, fortunately, we are spared the sight of its impact. Instead, the camera cuts to Tom’s seven-year-old daughter waking from a nightmare and screaming that she has seen a monster. Tom rushes to her bedside to assure her that “There are no monsters.” But, of course, we know better. And Tom—devoted father and loving husband—may be one himself.

Since this is a movie, we know it will not be long before the killers cross Stall’s path. Before they do, however, we learn a bit about Tom and his wife, Edie (Maria Bello). They are happily married with two lovely children. Their daughter (Heidi Hayes) is a darling blonde, and their son. Jack (Ashton Holmes), seems to be an obedient 16-year-old who commendably avoids trouble at every turn. When a school bully challenges him to a fight, he unhesitatingly backs down, a mature—if Milquetoast—decision. In fact, Jack’s mildness is characteristic of the Stalls. They are the all-American, middle-class, church-going family. Crucifixes hang conspicuously from their necks, and their Irish surname suggests they are practicing Catholics. Cronenberg does all he can to emphasize their turn-the-other-cheek niceness so that we are not at all surprised when hell breaks loose, shattering their cozy domesticity.

Predictably, the killers enter Tom’s diner one night to hold it up. Quickly divining their intention, Tom offers them whatever is in the till. That’s not good enough, however, They pull their guns and, to show they mean business, the younger one shoves a waitress against a wall to shoot her. With that, Tom throws a pot of steaming coffee in the older miscreant’s face, vaults the coimtcr, grabs the spluttering thug’s gun and blasts the other through the door. Scalded though he is, the older one then manages to stab Tom through his left foot. In response, Tom turns the gun to good effect on him also. From then on, Tom limps like the devil, both literally and symbolically. Echoing Lucifer’s foot, which was cloven when he dashed it on the floor of Hell, Tom’s wounded extremity signifies that his demon nature has been awakened, and pandemonium is in session.

Sure enough, local media publicity draws some mysterious mobsters to sleepy Millbrook. They park outside his home in a huge black Chrysler 300 and later visit his diner, crowded with his newly acquired admirers. Their leader, Fogarty (Ed Harris), insists on calling Tom “Joey” and insinuates they have a mutual historv back in Philadelphia, a history of violence that cost the blacksuited gangster his left eye. Impressively sinister with his tight, wolfish grin and mottled eye, Harris may or mav not be a symbol of Tom’s past. Still, there is no mistaking that he is symptomatic of the return of the repressed, thickening the plot.

From this point, Cronenberg pushes his narrative further and further over the top, until it culminates in a comic Grand Guignol. He wants to instruct us that old devils never die, but the oddly mixed tones of his script blunt his would-be moral. It is, by turns, hokey-jokey and, worse, archly knowing.

For professional criminals, Harris and his accomplices are laughably public about their intentions. They go about their business with all the discretion of warning lights at a railway crossing. They relentlessly hound Tom and his family in full view of whoever cares to take notice. Then Tom’s son suddenly stops turning the other cheek. When the same bully who tried to provoke him into a fight taunts him for not living up to his father’s sudden heroic fame, he flattens the lout with enough blows to send him to the hospital. Afterward, an upset Tom remonstrates that, “in this family, we don’t settle matters by hitting people.” When Jack retorts, “No, in this family we shoot them,” Tom smacks him. So, you see, violence begets violence. But does it in quite this way? Cronenberg rides his aroused-demon thesis so hard that he abandons all psychological plausibility. If there is one thing bullies buckle to, it is the other guy’s willingness to fight back. The last thing a schoolboy blusterer would do is pick a fight with the son of a man who has killed other bullies. Nor does Jack’s anger with his father wash. A son might be shaken to discover his father’s heretofore unacknowledged commando-like competence with firearms, but he surely would not mock him for it.

Then there is Cronenberg’s action scene choreography. Whether Tom goes up against two, three, or six baddies, he takes them out one at a time with an acrobatic élan worthy of Jackie Chan, while the other thugs obligingly remain out of camera range. Then, Cronenberg mocks these heroics by inserting extreme closeups of their violent consequences depicted with all the repulsively clinical exactness made possible by state-of-the art special effects: a jaw shot away; a nose blown off; a blasted skull seeping blood viscously on a carpet; a dying man, his impossibly twisted body twitching spastically. These gruesome shots scream, “Look at this; this is the consequence of real violence. Do you find it entertaining?” Other reviewers have been awed by these feints from fake cinematic mayhem to medically graphic results, but I found them dramatically dissonant and thematically pretentious. Cronenberg means to ridicule popular cinematic conventions to our edification. Stylized brutality is an impermissible guilty pleasure to be exorcised by mockery. But these action scenes come across as snidely superior. This is the type of “fun” that divides the audience into two camps: the in-the know sophisticates and the uninitiated clueless. The first smirk with self-congratulatory satisfaction; the second are left to scratch their heads.

I suppose Cronenberg meant to take Alfred Hitchcock’s lead. Hitchcock famously liked to entertain his audiences with violent or macabre sequences carried off with cinematic panache and their remind them that their enjoyment was predicated on the spectacle of human suffering. In Saboteur (1941), for instance, Robert Cummings chases a Nazi spy through Radio City Music Hall while a comical murder mystery is playing on the screen. As an actor in the film within the film draw his gun and fires, the spy starts shooting at Cummings and one of the “real” bullets hits a man in the audience. Then Hitchcock comes in for a close up of the wounded, dying man slumping in his seat as the unsuspecting audience members around him laugh uproariously at the comic violence on screen. The scene brilliantly implicates the real audience, the one watching Saboteur, in the violence they are witnessing. We are reminded that, like the movie audience within the film, we are taking voyeuristic pleasure in watching others suffer pain and death while comfortably ensconced in our theater seats—or, today, on our sofas watching Turner Classic Movies. There is a huge difference between Hitchcock and Cronenberg, however, and it is illuminating. While Hitchcock ably conveys his point without using blood and gore and with no lag in his film’s entertainment, Cronenberg’s grisly close-ups take us outside his film and into his lecture hall, where he gives us a lesson soured with a dollop of irony and a ton of political correctness. Men are inherently vicious. Tom is a man. Therefore, Tom is a monster. Cronenberg dramatizes this with bookend sex scenes. The first takes place before any of the gunplay. With the children out of the house, Tom and Edie repair to the attic, where Edie pretends to be a high-school cheerleader having one off with her boyfriend while her parents sleep below them. Tom obliges her scenario with some, shall we say, oral preliminaries, visually suggested, thankfully, but unmistakable. This identifies him as enlightened and considerate. The second sex scene arrives after Tom’s conflict with Fogarty has turned violent. His family has begun to fragment under the pressure of fear complicated by suspicion. Edie comes to doubt Tom’s innocence in the Fogarty matter and strikes out at him, supposing he has misled her. He instinctively subdues her sexually without any preliminaries, taking her with phallic abruptness, and on the staircase, no less. Afterward, we catch a glimpse of Edie’s back, rubbed raw by the treads. The first encounter exhibits courtly consideration; the second is inflected with a savagery begotten of Tom’s recourse to aggression in his conflict with the criminals.

It seems the male of the species is a hopeless case—unless, of course, he is willing to submit to Cronenberg’s lesson and become a right-thinking liberal pacifist, embracing a pusillanimous inoffensiveness as though it were a creed.

As the credits reveal, Cronenberg’s film is an adaptation of a graphic novel of the same title. No wonder it’s so cartoonish.