A History of Violence

America is a geographical history of violence – a land of brutality, sadism and murder.
David Cronenberg's A History of Violence dissects our basic desire for mayhem with the careful ease of a torturer peeling back a scar. Cronenberg is best known for directing creepy science fictions like Videodrome, Naked Lunch and Crash, but in History he does something unexpected: He opens a wound in small town America to show the things squirming below.
Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is an easygoing family man living in America’s heartland with his wife and two children. He owns a small diner, slouches around wiping up spills and discussing the weather. His wife Edie (Maria Bello) is an attorney, their son Jack (Ashton Holmes) is an ordinary teenager waiting out his time in one of those small towns that seem to disappear when you leave, and Tom and Edie’s toddler daughter Sarah (Heidi Hayes) is still too young to know she’s living in nowhere USA.
Tom’s peaceful world is shattered when two psychopaths decide to rob the diner. Blazing a path of bodies across the country and into Tom’s little diner, the two outlaws are exhausted by the carnage they create around them. Violence is a slow and tedious process sometimes and Cronenberg has a good eye for details, showing criminal brutality as a tiring ritual with all the charm of a small boy torturing an insect to death. 
The killers represent a frightening sort of violence; cheerless, chaotic sadism conjured up from the road itself. Millbrook, the small town where the Stalls live, has domesticated this sort of energy out of its men, rendered them as model citizens and good neighbors, and the killers approach the town as born predators.
Wolves among sheep, they immediately cow the customers at Tom’s dinner, who are terrified by their show of force. But Tom cuts their casual crime spree short by shooting them dead and the town celebrates him as a hero. Tom’s violence reminds them of their own capacity for bloodlust, their own cowboy impulses to punish the wicked.
When Tom becomes a media spectacle, however, gangsters come to Millbrook, thinking that he’s the long-lost brother of a mafia gang leader. Eddie Cusack was a cold-blooded murderer, and Philadelphia mobster Carl Fogaty (Ed Harris) is certain that Tom is actually Eddie on the lam. Eddie blinded Fogaty with a wad of barbed wire and the dead eye can now see through the Tom’s impersonation into the killer within.     
There is a disturbing drumming beneath the beat of ordinary life in Millbrook, even before Tom shoots the killers and the Stalls meet Fogaty. Edie and Tom play weird sexual games that smack of sadomasochism and Jack is bullied in school (a wolf in lamb’s clothes), and the small town’s inclination to protect its own resonates oddly when your own might be a murderer. When violence is released in the Stall family it burns out of control.
Tom is a member of the community and a father to a young family, whether or not he’s actually Eddie. The violence Tom unleashes defending his town against the killers is first accepted with pride, then as a necessary part of life as it radiates outward. Our families and towns protect what’s ours, even if it’s diseased, even if it will devour us from the inside out. The killer is a hero, a man who sits at the head of the table, a problem we can handle ourselves in our small towns, in our isolated little families.
America was created by outlaws and religious zealots who wanted to start a new life in a new country. Like Tom, they wanted nothing more than a chance to start over, an opportunity to leave everything behind, and like Tom they brought their violent tendencies with them. It runs deep inside us, passes through our genes, is recounted in stories and legend, dragged out when we need to be reminded of our strength and brutality. 
We think we’ve left all that behind in our move to the West and back again, but Cronenberg reminds us there’s still a little wildness in our lives, a little cannibalistic pride buried under Main Street.


Add comment

Security code

Want another opinion? Roger Ebert is one of my favorite reviewers and a personal hero.

Interested in hearing more? Download the eBook bound to change your life for $2.50 by clicking here!

Buy Now