Tom Stall/Joey Cusack (Viggo Mortensen)
What a fine and powerful film. Instead of 'everything is permitted', Cronenberg gives us 'everything is visible and apparent' (Shaviro — see below).
Many in the audience I saw it with late last night left disappointed: if they were expecting a straightforward Western/thriller for the 21st century, then, yes, they'd every right to feel their hopes had been dashed, but Cronenberg takes our genre expectations, and much more besides, and plays upon these to create something far-reaching. In his review (Guardian), J G Ballard wrote how, 'The characters in Cronenberg's films behave as if they are inhabiting their minds and bodies for the first time at the moment we observe them, fumbling with the controls like drivers in a strange vehicle'. And Jonathan Rosenbaum in the Chicago Reader said:
Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris)
There's hardly a shot, setting, character, line of dialogue, or piece of action in A History of Violence that can't be seen as some sort of cliché. Its fantasies about how American small towns are paradise and big cities are hell are genre standbys that Cronenberg milks at every turn. But none of this plays like cliché; Cronenberg is such an uncommon master of tone that we're in a state of denial about our familiarity with the material -- a kind of willed innocence that resembles Tom Stall's own disavowals.
We're made to stand back, to stand outside the roles into which we, and the films we watch, slip so effortlessly and to read everything that happens as strange and disturbing. Even the ending, so tantalisingly conventional in its expectations, remains with us as more than merely unsettling. Steven Shaviro:
As Tom, Mortensen is simply too blank to “identify” with; as Joey, he doesn’t display any of the self-congratulatory feeling that even Clint Eastwood (wonderfully minimal in expression as he is) does ultimately allow himself when he is in vengeful mode. … the greatness of Mortensen’s acting, in particular, lies in the way he switches from one to the other of his two ‘characters’ or personalities, so that ultimately he seems to be trapped in a no-man’s-land between them. He’s a man without qualities, which is why both of his personas seem unpsychological. The conventional way to tell this story would be to make one of the personas more basic, more in depth, revealing the other persona to be just a mask; but this is precisely what Cronenberg refuses to do.
Shaviro is particularly good in analysing the two sex scenes and, like him, I found them nearly equally unsettling (a word you can't easily avoid using again and again about this film) — and yet they are, nominally, so different:
Tom Stall/Joey Cusack (Viggo Mortensen) & Edie Stall (Maria Bello)
The first involves playacting, as Edie drags Mortensen-as-Tom off to a secret tryst in the course of which she dresses as a cheerleader, and they pretend to be making out while their (whose? hers, I think) parents are sleeping in the next room. The second is when Mortensen-as-Joey drags Edie down the stairs and brutally fucks her in what is at least a near-rape (she ultimately seems to consent, though it’s clear that she continues to feel loathing as much as desire). What unites these two opposed scenes is that they both seem similarly distanced and performative, except that there is no sense of any realer or truer self behind the mask of the performance. The first scene is a parody of what adolescence is supposed to be like; the second is a parody of what maturity or adulthood all too often turns out to be like. This is why I felt a bit queasy during the first scene, and found it almost as disturbing as the second one. Both scenes suggest a kind of void, and a failure of contact: the two people never really come together. (Is this what Lacan meant by declaring that “there is no sexual relation”?). It’s not a void that one can feel anguished about, however; for the selfhood, or sense of “thrownness” at least, that would allow one to feel anguish is precisely what is missing, what has been replaced by a void.
Ontological alienation, indeed! So much to be said, but here's Shaviro again (such a good posting) — first on the role of Tom's son, Jack, and then on the Moebius strip quality of the movie:
Jack Stall (Ashton Holmes) — left
… this movie really is a “history,” in the sense that it tracks the emergence of violence, and the different forms it takes at different times and in different circumstances. Violence is generated — almost as a autonomic effect — out of tiny rifts in the social fabric, or in the fabric of social myth (I mean, in the myth of noir as much as in the myth of wholesome “we take care of our own” Americana). This is why we get the story of Jack (Ashton Holmes), Tom’s teenage son, who erupts with violence [in response to bullying — above] in a parallel way to his father: as if what came back out of the past in the father’s case were generated as it were spontaneously, out of his very need to struggle, as an adolescent, with the (entirely stereotypical) problems of autonomy from the father and coming to terms with normative formations of masculinity. …
The common interpretive tendency in cases like this is to see the ‘dark’ side as the deep, hidden underside of the ‘bright’ side, the depths beneath the seemingly cheerful surface. But in A History of Violence, everything is what it seems. Both sides, both identities, are surfaces; both are ’superficial’; and they blend into one other almost without our noticing. The small town, with its overly ostentatious friendliness, is a vision of the good life; but brother Richie’s enormous mansion, furnished with a nouveau-riche vulgarity that almost recalls Donald Trump’s penthouse, is also a vision of the good life. In their odd vacancy, they are both quintessentially American (this could be, as Cronenberg has hinted, an allegory of America’s current cultural divide: blue states and red states, which actually are more continuous with one another than anyone on either side recognizes… this is something, perhaps, that only a Canadian could see, as it is invisible both to us Americans, who are too caught up in it, and to people from outside North America, who are too far away).
Ballard's review is a must, too: eg,
The title, A History of Violence, is the key to the film, and should be read not as a tale or story of violence, but as it might appear in a social worker's case notes: "This family has a history of violence." The family, of course, is the human family, a primate species with an unbelievable appetite for cruelty and violence. If its behaviour in the 20th century is any guide, the human race inhabits a huge sink estate ravaged by unending feuds and civil wars, a no-go area abandoned by the authorities, though no one can remember who they are, or even if they exist. …
What is so interesting about the film is the speed with which the wife accepts that her husband, for all his courage, is part of the criminals' violent world, in spirit, if not in actual fact. A dark pit has opened in the floor of the living room, and she can see the appetite for cruelty and murder that underpins the foundations of her domestic life. Her husband's loving embraces hide brutal reflexes honed by aeons of archaic violence. This is a nightmare replay of The Desperate Hours, where escaping convicts seize a middle-class family in their sedate suburban home - but with the difference that the family must accept that their previous picture of their docile lives was a complete illusion. Now they know the truth and realise who they really are. Their family has a history of violence.
There's a flat-footed review in the Observer and a semi-compromised one in the Guardian. k-punk has a characteristically stimulating piece.