The killer

Viggo Mortensen in A History of Violence (2005).

Has there been a more consummate director of genre films in the last thirty years than David Cronenberg?  A History of Violence (2005) is the kind of film that recent thrillers like Hell or High Water dream of being, a wicked little neo-noir founded on the simplest of premises: a small-town family man is revealed to have a secret past as a contract killer.  And yet, by virtue of Cronenberg’s talent as a storyteller and his willfulness as a connoisseur of the perverse, it opens onto something more sinuously dark and troubling than anything a fair-to-middling filmmaker like David Mackenzie could ever have dreamt up.  Cronenberg ranks with John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock as a world-class filmmaker whose utterly unique vision is perhaps best expressed when he’s working within the pre-fab codes of genre cinema.  A History of Violence is as profound and ironic in its understanding of the paradoxes of American morality as The Man who Shot Liberty Valance or Shadow of a Doubt or Out of the Past, all of which it invokes to varying degrees. 

Family portrait.  Tellingly, Sarah has just woken up from a nightmare about "monsters."

These films aren’t just about the sickness under the surface of American life.  They’re about the centrality of violence to America’s history, its inescapability as well as its incompatibility with the vision of a nation that it has tried to build, crystallized in the figure of the killer/hero.  A History of Violence asks, quite literally, whether a place at the family dinner table can be made for the man whose talent for killing has both saved the family and threatened to break it apart.  At the end of films like Shane and The Searchers, the killer/hero remains shut out from the social structures he has worked to protect, a taboo figure doomed to wander the far side of the frontier; at the end of A History of Violence, the question is posed, can he be domesticated, and, even if he can, do we want him to be?  The film concludes with an intensely charged, wordless sequence—as good an example of the economy and elegance of Cronenberg’s style as any in his filmography—in which a series of gazes is made to symbolize the conflict that has always attended our relationship to the killer/hero.  Maria Bello’s Edie becomes a stand-in for the audience, simultaneously frightened of, turned on by, and fascinated with the violent edge of a character we thought we loved because he was so good. 

Edie and Tom: the final shots.

Like Hitchcock, Cronenberg understands that violence begins at home: it doesn’t lurk “out there” but is already “in here.”  It’s in this respect that A History of Violence most resembles Hitchcock’s masterpiece Shadow of a Doubt.  Both films are domestic dramas that turn on a traumatic fall into knowledge and evil, catalyzed by the realization that a beloved family member is not who he seems to be.  In A History of Violence that realization is made all the more emphatic by Viggo Mortensen’s performance as Tom Stall/Joey Cusack.  Mortensen has arguably never looked blander than he does as Tom, with his bad haircut, sleepy eyes and dad jeans.  Then in the action scenes (as “Joey”) he snaps to life, his body seeming to move on pure instinct.  There’s an absolutely chilling moment (see above) when, immediately following a bloody showdown in his front yard, Mortensen moves to embrace his teenage son, his face spattered with blood, his eyes glittering, looking like a man possessed.  Mortensen and Cronenberg don’t just show us Joey and Tom, the killer and the hero, as two sides of the same man—they show them to us at the same time.  In A History of Violence the sickness isn’t under the surface; the sickness is the surface.

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