A History of Violence

What America can learn about itself from David Cronenberg is that his opinion doesn’t matter much, unfortunately, because he’s Canadian. Please hold your jeers until the end of the essay. As Cronenberg’s new film, A History of Violence, racks up accolades like one of its (several) murderous characters racks up fresh kills, it seems prudent to put the acclaimed director’s viewpoint on Americana in perspective. However much we can.

I will confess that the work of David Cronenberg tends to fill me with paranoia. Not because paranoia is the creepy milieu he has so carefully staked out for himself, but because I often come away from his films unreasonably afraid that I’m the only person in the world who doesn’t find them quite so brilliant. My first certain response to A History of Violence was my usual Cronenberg-movie response: “OK,” I told myself. “People will be calling this a masterpiece.” Well, not so fast.

Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) runs a bucolic diner in a bucolic Indiana town. A couple of drifters show up with less than bucolic intentions (the movie begins with a languid display of the drifters’ hobbies, which include petty bickering, petty theft and the murder of frightened children), and Tom, to everybody’s surprise but his own, perhaps, springs fiercely to the rescue — dispatching the men and becoming the town’s reluctant and of course bucolic hero.

Television cameras swoop down on him, his effete son Jack (Ashton Holmes) looks up to him, and his story evidently makes it all the way to Philadelphia, where it’s seen by a mobster (Ed Harris) who thinks Tom is actually a killer he knows as Joey. In fact, he’s been looking for Joey. So the mobster and his cronies get in their ominously black limo and head for Indiana.

OK, we reasonably ask, so is Tom Joey or is he Tom? If he is Joey and has just been pretending to be Tom all this time, what does that mean, fundamentally, about the nature of bucolic America? Well, Cronenberg has a clear answer for the first question, but he dodges the second, and don’t let anybody tell you differently. Maybe he figured just asking would be enough. In any case, abetted by Mortensen’s carefully measured performance, Tom (or Joey) becomes more of a muddled political thesis-statement than a character.

In reaction to all of this, his wife Edie’s (Maria Bello) first certain response is to throw up, which might be the movie’s truest moment. More important to the filmmaker, however, is what follows: a potent enactment of the you-fucked-with-the-wrong-guy story, long favored in American film and recently favoured in American foreign policy.

Cronenberg has said he’s happy that none of the film was actually shot in the U.S., because, as he put it, “It really is about America’s mythology of itself rather than attempting to be a slice of life as it’s lived in America now, which is quite a different thing.”

A dodge, I say. Yes, it is quite a different thing, which is precisely why you can’t just fake it and forget it. Critics adore the not-quite-rightness of Cronenberg’s Indiana, but I don’t imagine many Hoosiers will. Never mind the rest of us, whose mythology of ourselves, however contradictory and ridiculous, is movie-influenced enough to be more savvy in these matters than this film allows.

Following his father’s “heroic” example (of precise, instinctual and rather movie-ish ferocity), Jack promptly beats the shit out of the school bully—who’d been tormenting him for the simple reason that it was what the movie’s plot and politics required. Sudden badassery is a departure from Jack’s previous and notably successful policy, which was to pre-empt locker-room thrashings with overt submission and unmatchable wit. A kid who can’t believe he’s coordinated enough to catch a fly ball now handling his first fight like an action hero? Well, the not-quite-rightness of that doesn’t say “masterpiece” to me. Of course, his father is a something of a mystery that way, too. What if it’s a family history of violence, eh?

Well, when the bully’s parents threaten to sue (lest we forget, these are Americans), Jack’s father shouts, “In this family, we don’t solve problems by hitting people!” “No, we shoot them” is the boy’s predictable response, to which the father’s predictable response is a slap in the face and our predictable response is an “ah-ha” about the contagiousness of savagery.

It’s roughly as manipulative and as lamely characterized as a public-service announcement, something even bucolic Americans should be able to see through. They already know, as W.H. Auden wearily wrote in 1939, “What all schoolchildren learn, / Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return,” and they know that knowing doesn’t help much. Well duh, in other words.

Cronenberg would probably be a more reliable commentator on violence if he didn’t enjoy it so much. It’s hard not to notice that the only relief from A History of Violence’s stiff posture of feigned self-awareness comes when it relaxes into agile, instinctively controlled sprees of brutality. Granted, he keeps it quick, save for the occasional slow-down to dwell on the disgusting consequences of bullet wounds and what not, but all that this really does is further encase Cronenberg’s lurid impulses; as in The Fly or eXistenZ, the effect of such a fleshy exhibition is not legitimately allegorical, it’s just gross. And although we may have endorsed it over the years, that’s Cronenberg’s fetish, not America’s.

When it comes to non-native filmmakers commenting on the American character, there is misreading and there is misanthropy. Both, apparently, are points of pride for someone like Lars von Trier (see Dogville). But Cronenberg does not seem to bear the U.S. any explicit ill will. Only a true xenophobe could seriously call him anti-American. And only an academic fantasist could make any use of his movie’s implicit and clichéd critique — which amounts, I think, to a simple sotto voce quip about cowboy diplomacy. If the admonishment is, “Mr. Bush, don’t drop bombs from arm’s length on a culture you don’t understand,” well, that’s too easy, not least because it invites the too-easy response: “Mr. Cronenberg, don’t drop bombs from arm’s length on a culture you don’t understand.”

By and large, though, we’ve responded with critical complicity. So maybe the director should experiment with some actual ill will. Then we’ll really have something to blame Canada for.