In the context of Cronenberg’s body of work, the gut reaction to A History of Violence is to call it his dramatic turning point. While it certainly marks a change in style and genre, it still contains fundamental issues of films like Videodrome and Crash, but now in the context of “normal” human society. Cronenberg has explored violence through fringe and extreme groups of individuals, but here he takes it on in the context of the nuclear family unit.
The Stall family, from the outside, appears healthy and happy. Tom (Viggo Mortensen) gets by working at a mom and pop coffee shop while his wife, Eide (Maria Bell) works the big job. Their son, Jack (Ashton Holmes) is smart, but suffers from being the subject of bullies, while Sarah (Heidi Hayes) represents the relative innocence of this family. Docile, nice but her shrill scream after a nightmare, the scream thatintroduces the audience to the family, foreshadows the distress about the descend upon the family.
To say much more would be to spoil the intriguing narrative Cronenberg develops to explore the various issues of violence that emerge throughout the film. What can be discussed with little fear of spoilers are those issues. The opening scene, a long take involving two men slaughtering innocence for no particular reason, bring up one of the core issues of violence: generational cycles.
The pair is comprised of an old and young man, the older of which instigates the violence which the young man then takes upon himself to complete. This portrait suggests that part of male mentorship, whether among friends or fathers and sons, is built upon the teaching of violence; that something in the psychology of the man is built to pass on these traits.
However, the story also tries to depict the attempt to break away from this heritage of violence, that through creating that place of safety, the home which the father can protect the son from violence, he will not be exposed and forced into that violence. The problem becomes that sometimes the world seeks out violence on those who are weak.
This brings up one of the hardest issues explored in the film: can violence only be answered with violence? Throughout the film, characters try to avoid and evade violence through diplomacy, but violence becomes a form of power and unless one simply wishes to submit, the only apparent solution seems to be to return that violence back upon the person inflicting the violence.
What complicates this whole mess is that then these acts of violence must be answered for, no matter how just. These judgments come in different ways some more final, others more agonizing. This is where the context of society comes to bear on the film as an entire subculture built around this principle emerges.
If the film misses a ripe opportunity in its examination of violence is that it fails to explore the idea of police as an institutionalized form of violence. Their presence is in the film and yet it’s oddly absent from the events that occur. The film even goes out of its way to introduce the sheriff and then quickly packages him away for the rest of the film.
What ultimately taints the smart and provoking examinations of violence in A History of Violence is the third act which twists the film into something it isn’t, an almost self-reflexive exercise in exploitation. It introduces a character late in the film that is out of this world. This is the kind of shift in tone that worked well in Cronenberg’s more media driven critiques, but here it lacks that context to pull off the tonal twist.
For good or ill, A History of Violence appears to have set the tone for where Cronenberg wants to go in the future. He still needs to tweak his storytelling style to fit the context of the more grounded world he is dealing in, as well as perhaps a better understanding of the social forces behind it, but he still proves that he can scrutinize socially charged subjects like few other directors.
© 2011 James Blake Ewing