David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (New Line Cinema, 2005) is truly a superb movie, with a tight and economical script (the whole story is told in 96 minutes), a remarkably subtle and gripping performance by Viggo Mortensen (his best ever, in my opinion), excellent performances from the rest of the cast, and an unostentatiously elegant directorial style (unmarred by the middlebrow pretentiousness and penchant for the juvenile and repulsive that ruin most of Cronenberg’s movies).
The hero of A History of Violence is Tom Stall, played by Viggo Mortensen. As the movie opens, Stall is portrayed as very much a White everyman. He is a family man with a wife (Edie, played by Maria Bello) and two children (Jack, played by Ashton Holmes and Sarah, played by Heidi Hayes). He lives in Millbrook, Indiana, a small, apparently entirely White town in the Midwest. (Only one black appears, a TV news reporter from out of town.)
Tom is middle class, but a little above middle, as he owns a small business (a diner, where he mans the counter, coffee-pot, and cash register) and his wife Edie is a small-town lawyer. Both Tom and Edie wear crosses around their necks, which are clearly visible in several scenes, so it is impossible to mistake them for anything but Christians.
Like a lot of American men today, Tom is a bit of a wimp. Physically, he is not soft or effeminate, but fit and manly. Yet his manner is hesitant and self-deprecating, his speech laconic and soft, his voice sometimes high-pitched and pleading. His wife, by contrast, is articulate, outspoken, and confident. In many scenes, she does the talking for Tom. Tom is sexually passive while his wife is sexually aggressive. In a rather subtle touch, throughout most of the movie Tom cannot get his masculine pickup truck to start, so his wife drives him to work in her maternal station-wagon.
The Stalls’ teenage son is a bit of a wimp too. Like his father, he has an athletic physique and athletic ability, but not an athlete’s self-confidence. He is bullied by some jocks, who call him a “fag,” and he replies only with sarcasm. His verbal self-confidence comes from his mother the lawyer.
But we see there is more to Tom than meets the eye when two thugs hold up his diner at closing time. (The robbers have already been established as sadistic killers.) When it becomes apparent that they want to take more than just money, Tom, in a thrilling, cathartic explosion of violence, kills them both.
Immediately, Tom is hailed by the news media as a hero, but he shuns the acclaim and attention in his soft-spoken, self-deprecating manner. He just wants life to go back to normal. Unfortunately, some people just won’t let him.
A few days later, when the diner has reopened, three well-dressed but sinister out-of-towners drop by. The leader, Carl Fogarty (played by Ed Harris), has a hideously scarred face. Fogarty insists that Tom Stall is actually named Joey Cusak, that he is from Philadelphia, and that they have met before. Tom, somewhat flustered, denies their allegations. Then Edie steps in and tells them firmly to leave.
Once the trio departs, Edie calls the Sheriff, who pulls the men over and tells them to leave town. Then he looks into their identities. They are gangsters from Philadelpia with long criminal records. Suspense mounts as Fogarty and his men stalk and menace the Stall family. Fogarty tells Edie that Tom was involved in organized crime (his brother Richie Cusak is a big mobster), that Tom has killed before, and that it was Tom who scarred his face and blinded him in one eye.
Meanwhile, Jack Stall, no doubt imitating his father’s heroism in the diner, decides to fight back against the bullies who have been picking on him. He is suspended and sent home from school. Tom first rebukes his son for using violence. He tells him that in their family they do not solve problems by hitting people. Jack hurls back, “No, in this family we kill them.” Stung, Tom slaps Jack’s face, and Jack storms out of the house.
Jack returns a while later as a hostage of Fogarty and his men. Fogarty offers to trade Jack for his father. He tells Tom that he wants to take him to Philadelphia and on a ride “down memory lane.” Both destinations sound ominous.
Tom complies long enough to secure Jack’s release. Then he fights. Tom handily kills Fogarty’s two goons, but is wounded by Fogarty. As he lies on the ground, Fogarty towering over him about to deliver the coup de grâce, Tom says that he should have killed Fogarty back in Philadelphia when he had the chance. So Tom is Joey after all. But before Fogarty can fire, he is felled from behind by a shotgun blast. It is Jack. He solved the problem, Stall style.
Edie and Jack are naturally horrified to discover that Tom Stall is really Joey Cusak, a mob-connected killer. Jack responds with more smart talk. Edie’s reaction runs the gamut from retching (the only scene that really rings false) to weeping and screaming to standing up for her husband when the Sheriff begins asking questions.
Tom, for his part, makes it clear that he did more than merely change his name. It was a process of psychological death and rebirth. He says he went out to the desert (symbolically a place of purification) and killed Joey, and he was only fully reborn when he married Edie. This is a very significant point, for the whole film dwells on the contrast between bands of unmarried men and married men with families, and what makes possible the transition.
But everyone, including Tom himself, has reason to be glad that Joey was not killed off in the desert. It is Joey who saved the customers and staff of Stall’s diner. It is Joey who saved the Stall family from Fogarty. It is also Joey who gave Jack the strength to stand up for himself and his family, even to the point of killing Fogarty.
Edie, moreover, finds Joey sexually attractive. When a heated argument turns suddenly violent, Edie finds it arousing. Although it is Edie who first turns the tussle in a sexual direction, overall the scene reverses the couple’s earlier lovemaking, where Edie is active and Tom passive. The scene is psychologically plausible, totally politically incorrect, and just plain hot. But in the end, Joey still spends the night on the couch.
Joey is awakened by a phone call from his brother Richie, who asks him to come to Philadelphia. The alternative is that Richie come there, which would endanger the family. So, in the dead of night, Joey gets in his pickup truck (which he can now get started) and heads to Philadelphia.
The climax of the movie is the meeting of Joey and Richie (in a reptilian portrayal by William Hurt) in a posh suburban mansion. We learn that Joey fled Philadelphia after savagely beating Carl Fogarty and killing some of his men. Fogarty was a “made man” in the mob, so Richie’s own career was impeded by his brother’s impulsive violence. (As Joey points out, however, Richie seems to have done well for himself anyway.)
The bulk of their conversation deals with family.
First, Richie makes it clear that monogamy holds no charms for him. He can’t see how one woman can make him want to give up all the others. Joey, however, understands. It is how he was transformed from “Crazy Joey,” the ultra-violent outcast from his own criminal Männerbund, into a responsible family man who would not only live beyond his violent youth, but beyond his own death through his children.
Second, Joey explains that he fled Philadelphia after beating Fogarty because he thought Richie would choose career over family, avenging Fogarty rather than protecting his brother. Richie admits that he was right.
Joey seems fully cognizant that no matter how much he has changed (and it was less than he thought), his brother has not changed at all. Still, Joey’s hope that he can mend his relationship with his brother is touchingly palpable. But when Richie reminisces about the time he tried to strangle Joey in his crib and then adds as an aside, “I guess all kids do that,” the effect is slightly comical but so inhuman that it makes a mockery of Joey’s hopes.
When Richie signals to one of his henchmen to strangle Joey, there is another explosion of violence, leaving Richie and four henchmen dead.
The movie ends with Joey’s return home at dinner time on a dark autumn evening. The scene is tense. No words are spoken. But the tension begins to ease when Sarah sets a place at the table for her father. He sits down, the circle mended, and Edie slowly raises her eyes to look into Tom’s.
We are left with some hope that Tom is finally free of his past, that his family is safe, and that they will find a way of living with Joey rather than trying to bury him again in the desert.
A History of Violence is a meditation on the inherent connection between manliness and the capacity for violence. The movie clearly shows the necessity of domesticating wolf packs of young violent males (the bullying jocks, the two wandering killers, the Philadelphia mafia) who struggle to establish dominance hierarchies and egg one another on to challenge authority, transgress boundaries, and use and discard females. Unless such young men can form families and follow laws, society—and much of the human race—will perish.
But what sets A History of Violence apart, and makes it a remarkable movie, is that it also shows that we must civilize young men without emasculating them, because the masculine capacity for violence is also what protects the family and social order from unattached, predatory males. It is strong, responsible, manly men—not Hollywood’s ball-busting female cops, cat-suited karate girls, and other silly “strong women” clichés; not academia’s sensitivity training, candlelight vigils, and feminist scolds—that are the true bulwark of civilization. This is hardly the sort of message delivered by most movies today.
I highly recommend A History of Violence. It is a pro-family movie that you definitely will not want to show the whole family.