BEST FILM OS THE DECADE #12

A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE (Cronenberg) 2005
Out from the past?
a commentary by Tony McRae

(This review contains a bit of a spoiler.)

David Cronenberg's "A History of Violence" poses an intriguing question: Can a man blot out his past and reinvent himself, that is, erase his own history and start over, complete with loving wife and children?  In the classic film noir of the 40s and 50s, the past is a force that overtakes the present; despite the protagonist's best efforts, he is no match for its inexorable pull.  

In "Out of the Past," the Robert Mitchum character Jeff Bailey is in a similar situation to Tom Stall (Viggo Mortenson) in “A  History of Violence.”  Jeff runs a gas station and is dating a wholesome woman; Tom Stall (Viggo Mortenson) owns a diner in a small  Indiana town; he has a wife and two children.  Both characters seem to have found the perfect fit.  Until someone from the past finds them. 


In each movie the hero is forced to return to his past: Jeff to the criminal boss (Kurt Douglas) who hired him to find a woman and bring her back.  He fails. Tom must return to Philadelphia and his mob boss brother Richie (William Hurt) whom he's walked out on.  He tells his brother he wants to restore peace, but of course that is not possible. 


“A History of Violence” starts out in typical Cronenberg fashion:  a stationary camera shows two men exiting a motel room.  “Unsavory” comes immediately to mind.  The older man walks to the motel office, presumably to pay the bill.  The other drives his car slowly to the office door.  He waits.  Finally the older man comes out.  “What took you so long?” the other says laconically.  The maid gave me some trouble, the other answers.  Before they start out they decide they need water for the trip.  The older man says there’s a water cooler in the office.  The young guy takes an empty container and walks to the door, the camera following him.  We’ve already guessed how the older man had settled up with the troublesome maid.


These first minutes of the movie set the tone for what immediately follows—a sequence that introduces us to the Stall family and the town of Millbrook, Indiana, a typical middle America community with its small stores and working folk going about their rather uneventful lives.  Perhaps “peaceful” rather than “uneventful.”  Cronenberg takes great care to establish an everyday, even a boring, ambiance.   And all the time we remember the killings at the motel. 


Opening scenes in movies are crucial, not only because they get the story going, but because they immediately become the story’s past.  The better the opening, the more indelible it remains:  we are never able to shake free from our minds what we saw in that motel office, just as Tom Stall is never able to free himself from his own past which has more to do with that motel than with the diner he runs. 


We shouldn't be surprised when we learn about Tom Stall's past.  Viggo Mortenson gives his character the weight of  one who has spent much of his life absorbing his own dreadful history, of having to move about a town as a good citizen and family man.  Mortenson is up to the job, showing a man who truly loves yet is constantly having to look over his shoulder.  


As the title implies, violence is at the heart of this movie.  In the opening scene, the violence is off-screen, but subsequently all the
violence centers around Tom Stall:  he either commits the violence or is responsible for others doing so.  Or so it might seem, at least in the case of his son Jack (Ashton Holmes) who is being bullied in school by other boys.  Finally he reaches the end of his rope and turns on his tormentors and gives them a severe beating, going beyond the normal retaliation.  We might very well think that he is indeed his father's son. 

This is made more overt when Tom tells Jack that hitting won't solve anything.  Jack shouts back, what does solve things, shooting someone?, referring to his father's dispatch of the thugs who tried to rob him and assault his waitress.  His father's swift answer is a hard slap to the face.

So, is there a violence gene?  In a Cronenberg movie nothing is so blatant.  But nothing is certain either, nothing assured.     

The ending of "A History of Violence" seems to imply—or at least holds out the hope—that one can overcome one's past, can atone for past sins, and perhaps restart one's life.  At the bottom of all this is a nagging question:  "Can others forgive him?  And perhaps more importantly, "Can he forgive himself?"  His wife Edie (Maria Bello) still has her doubts.  Perhaps we should too.


David Cronenberg lets the audience decide.

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