A History of Violence
This has to be one of the best movies of the year. How rare to see a thrilling movie that doesn’t exploit its violence, that doesn’t follow the tired old formulas. Tired? Hell, most of the shoot-’em-ups we see these days are so phony, so predictable, so paint-by-numbers that I’m amazed they have the energy to stumble into the last, stupid reel with any pulse at all. In fact, most are brain-dead on arrival at the screen.
Not this one. There are four violent scenes, and each of them is over in less than a minute. (I’m not counting the masterful, horrific opening scene, the most disturbing in the movie, where the bloodletting happens entirely off-screen.) Do you know how much courage that takes in these days of 20-minute shoot-outs? When the violence comes it is quick, brutal, no-quarter, deadly, heart-stoppingly fast. David Cronenberg doesn’t slaver over it, he never gives us slow-motion, multi-angle hails of bullets, or any of the nauseating auteuristic show-off clichés of recent action movies. Nor does he stint on the blood. A bullet enters a guy’s head, it’s going to make a mess coming out, and this is shown unflinchingly.
I can’t go much farther without letting a whole lot of kitties out of the bag, so …
… though if you follow movies at all you will know that the mild-mannered diner owner (Tom Stall AKA Joey played by Viggo Mortensen) is living a 20-year lie, that he used to be a mob killer and he was very, very good at what he did. But if you came to it totally blind, it wouldn’t be until more than halfway through before you were sure about what his wife and kids are so desperate to find out: Who is my husband/dad?
This movie works on so many levels. First, the aforesaid depiction of violence. I am not a violent man, but I’m not a pacifist. I don’t believe that “violence never solved anything.” Violence has solved a lot of things, throughout human history, but never without a price, as it so often does in the movies. Because I am not a violent man I know a hundred ways of avoiding violence, from simply submitting to a bully, as the son does in this movie, to running away as fast as you can. But when you can’t run away from it, when you see that all alternatives have been exhausted, you must strike. You must fight dirty. If it is worth fighting about at all (and I’m talking personal or familial life or death, not politics or warfare) then it is worth fighting dirty for. You always hit below the belt, in the soft, vulnerable places. Stomp on a man’s throat while he’s down, and I guarantee he will not get up and attack you again. (He won’t get up again, ever, which must be your goal. We see this done in this movie, and it’s over in three seconds.) If you have a gun, you shoot to kill, not wound, and you keep shooting until you’re sure. If you have to cut, don’t stop cutting until the head comes clean off. Tom/Joey knows all these things, and when he has to fight, you don’t want to be in his way because he won’t hesitate.
Second, the effects on Tom’s family are believable, they ring true. The son is tormented by bullies of the type we all knew in high school, and he submits to them. His girlfriend is right: they are Neanderthals, and not worth his time and skinned knuckles. But after his dad kills two would-be robber/rapists, he suddenly finds himself capable of absolutely destroying the two meanest junkyard dog assholes in the hallway. If he hadn’t been pulled away, he would have killed them both with his fists. This is profoundly satisfying (unless you are a true pacifist) … and also profoundly disturbing. We don’t like to think about it, but this level of violence resides in all of us.
Maria Bello plays it letter-perfect as the wife. At first she does all the expected, futile, law-abiding things. Calls the police chief, a friend. Gets a restraining order. But when she realizes killers may be coming to her home, she doesn’t hesitate, she breaks out the double-barrel streetsweeper and gets ready to blow some heads off. Then when she realizes her whole life has been based on her husband’s lie … she is pissed. Who wouldn’t be? And yet she supports him. She lies, and hates herself for it. She fights off the husband’s desperate attempts to hold on to her … and then she responds, in spite of herself, and they have violent sex on the stairs. (Both actors became pretty bruised filming this scene. It isn’t tender, it isn’t loving, but seldom have I seen such passion on the screen.) There is something primal going on here, and Cronenberg shows it to us, and all the conflicts it brings to our “civilized” minds.
Third, the movie never goes where we have become conditioned to expect it to go. It opens with two extremely creepy guys, takes its time to establish their utter ruthlessness. Any other movie, these are the guys who would take part in the final, epic shootout through the abandoned factory/hero’s home/freeway chase. But these guys are eliminated with shocking speed. Next we get the loathsome Ed Harris and his brutal crew. Surely he’ll be around for the climax, he’ll be the second-to-last to die in horrible vengeance, just before Mr. Big, the man behind all the evil. And yet, before we know it … but I’m telling too much, even with a spoiler warning. And if you’re expecting a Mexican standoff with Mr. Big, and then a twenty-minute fight with bullets spraying and fists flying in a pouring rain, a la Lethal Weapon … forget about it! The violence is economical and instantaneous, and real.
If this movie reminds me of anything else, it is Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. In that one Dustin Hoffman was a mild-mannered mathematician forced to defend his wife, himself, and his home against a bunch of yahoos. Against all odds, he finds these depths of violence in himself to prevail. Tom/Joey is different in that he already knows all the tricks, but on the other hand Joey is so deeply buried that Tom doesn’t really know who he is, either, and Joey’s sudden appearance when he’s needed is almost as big a shock to him as it is to his wife.
I was very nervous as we came to the end. This is where so many pictures blow it. You figure the good guy will prevail, but will the movie lose all credibility in the process? No, it will not. It strikes just the right note, the perfect note, by not spoon-feeding us a “message,” by not having things suddenly be “all right.” Things will never again be all right, or at least not much like they were before. More violence might be in store, but for a moment there is peace, and we are left to ponder … can this family survive?