I’m not sure how much I can add, belatedly, to what k-punk, girish twice, Chuck, Jodi — followed by k-punk’s reply and Jodi’s counter-reply — Jonathan Rosenbaum, and others have already said about A History of Violence. But I do think that it is David Cronenberg’s best film since at least Dead Ringers (1988). Quite some time ago, I wrote extensively about the body horror in Cronenberg’s early films: which meant a lot, and still means a lot, to me. I was a bit disappointed, however, about the way that Cronenberg’s distancing himself from genre, in order to embrace “art film,” got in the way of his adaptations of writers with whom he shared a sensibility (William Burroughs and J. G. Ballard). And I was still more disappointed, when, in his more recent films, even though sometimes with increased artistic power, Cronenberg moved away from that explosive sensibility altogether, and towards an implosive concern with the anguish of wounded white male interiority — a subject with which I have little sympathy, as I think that we (since I have to be included as part of that “we”) need to get over it, and go on to more important things than whining over our supposed (more fantasmatic than actually real) loss of privilege. (In fairness, I should note that my friend Bill Beard, in his excellent book on Cronenberg, not only gives a far less pejorative account of this progress, but also argues that such a process was in fact already the real concern of Cronenberg’s earlier films as well, despite all the posthuman exploration that I, among others, have read into them).
The editing of A History of Violence is very tight and powerful, like that of Spider. But the important thing is that A History of Violence for me is that the film is not psychological, not about interiority, in the way Spider definitely still was (and the way many of the Cronenberg films of the last fifteen years or so have been). By “not psychological”, I don’t mean not affective, but that the affect in some way is impersonal or transpersonal. In Spider, dread was tied in to the protagonist’s point of view: a POV that we know is distorted and fantasmatic, but which we cannot escape from, or get an independent perspective on, despite this knowledge. The epistemological deadlock — or better, prison — that is at the heart of that film was reinforced by the way in which the adult protagonist (Ralph Fiennes) appears in the frame as a silent observer of his own psychotically distorted childhood memories.
The editing and pacing of A History of Violence create a similar sense of dread, even when what is explicitly going on (the members of a picture-perfect nuclear family eating breakfast, pouring the dry cereal, etc.) is entirely “normal” and banal. But Viggo Mortensen, playing the protagonist, is so closed off and opaque that we can’t really read (or more accurately: feel) what he’s going through as subjective anguish. (I’m assuming anyone who has read this far has seen the movie, or at least knows the basic premise: Tom Stall, exemplary small-town family man, turns out to have a dark past as Joey Cusack, psychotic mob hit man). 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. In an email exchange, Bill Beard suggested to me that Cronenberg and Mortensen are operating by subtraction: “A History of Violence produces something radical simply by subtracting standard conduits of viewer empathy from what is unmistakably a mainstream-movie framework.” So we get, for instance, generic small-town Americana such as is found in the paintings of Norman Rockwell, and in the films of Frank Capra and (more recently) Steven Spielberg; everything is literally as it is supposed to be, but some dimension of warmth (or smarminess) is unaccountably missing, and this makes it all rather creepy. I’d only add to Beard’s account that 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.
All this is even more evident in the two extraordinary sex scenes between Mortensen’s character and his wife Edie (Maria Bello), which are at the heart of the movie. 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.
All this is to say that the split or doubling in A History of Violence is ontological, rather than existential or psychological. The split between Tom and Joey, and between the two sex scenes, of course corresponds to the two worlds of the film, both of which are themselves cinematic — and thereby social — fantasies: the wholesome, Capraesque or Spielbergesque small town (Ronald Reagan’s America, or George W. Bush’s red states) on the one hand, and the big-city-at-nighttime on the other. (I initially thought of film noir for these scenes; but on further reflection I’m reminded more of the big city in violent-revenge-fantasy films like Charles Bronson’s Death Wish, or, more recently, Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s Sin City — it’s not irrelevant that A History of Violence, like Sin City, is an adaptation of material that first appeared in comic book form).
The result is that A History of Violence offers us a kind of spookily abstract modeling of cultural formations: of American fantasies about family, the good life, violence, empowerment, and self-reinvention: and in particular of how these participate in the construction of masculinity. This is very different from exploring the disintegration of masculinity — or of American culture, for that matter — from the inside. I call this ‘abstract modeling’ not just because Cronenberg’s presentation is so distanced and subtractive, but also because in a very real sense the abstraction is all that there is: the “inside” — something more personal and subjective, that would give the abstraction existential density and individual quirkiness and variability — simply doesn’t exist. This is Cronenberg’s version of postmodern flatness: the depths do not exist, everything is visible and apparent. This also explains the title of the film: this move 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 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. (I think that Jodi’s reading of the film as the son’s fantasy is valuable in the way it works out the son’s perspective; but I don’t accept it as an overall reading of the film, because it overly psychologizes the film and privileges the son’s perspective more than the film itself does, and thereby gives that perspective too much existential weight, ignoring how the film suggests it is just another social cliche, another purely superficial mode of articulating an otherwise blank subjectivity).
To say that A History of Violence is ontological and historical, rather than existential and psychological; and to say that it shows violence to be itself a surface or superficial effect of a structure or abstract model that is itself all surfaces (I’m calling it a “structure”, but the point of this is precisely that there is no underlying “deep structure” in any sense of the term): to say all this is also to say that the dichotomy or structural opposition that the film presents us with is false, and that the film ‘deconstructs’ the opposition, rather than affirming it. In other words, A History of Violence is like a Moebius strip. At any given point, it seems to have two sides; but the two sides are really the same side, each is continuous with the other, and slides imperceptibly into the other. There is no way to separate the Capra/Spielberg side from the noir/revenge nocturnal side. 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 blends 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).
The Moebius strip would be Cronenberg’s version of the postmodern idea that there are no depths, only surfaces. Or (the same thing, to me) that there are affects, but not identities to be owners of those affects. And this two-sides-as-one would be why/how Cronenberg can be so unrelentingly grim, instead of having to resort to camp, in the ways that David Lynch and Guy Maddin both do (in the ways, I would say, that they are both forced to do, because of the extremities of their visions). K-Punk is right to assert that, for both Cronenberg and Lynch, it’s wrong to explain away the dualities and dichotomies of their films by saying that one side is the dream or fantasy or underside of the other. Rather, we have to grasp the total congruence of the film’s two halves (this comment would apply to Mulholland Drive as much as to A History of Violence. The difference is that where Lynch marks the two sides in the form of manic camp on the one hand and depressive bitterness and paranoia on the other, Cronenberg flattens both of them out, empties them both out. Lynch is thus a maximalist, Cronenberg a minimalist).
To say that Cronenberg’s vision in this film is ontological is also to say that he recognizes no hierarchy of levels. A History of Violence isn’t a film about existential male anguish, precisely because it works equally well, without privileging any one of these, as a study of the vacancy of the isolated inidividual, of the bourgeois nuclear family, of America as a fantasmatic formation or imaginary community, and of the “human condition” in the most general terms. But if it works most bitingly and corrosively on the level of family, this is because the Spielberg/revenge dichotomy-that-isn’t-one, which is Cronenberg’s largest cinematic reference point, tends to play out most overtly in terms of Family. The small town, of course, is grounded on the nuclear family, and its “family values”; Joey became Tom, in large part, by becoming a family man (which is why Edie worries, when she discovers the hidden identity, what the family really is, what their name is or could be). In Philadelphia, Richie makes a speech to Joey/Tom about why and how he never married & would never marry: it ties you down, makes difficulties, if you are married, then when you have a fling with somebody else (as you will inevitably want to do) you will have to do it with elaborate secrecy, etc. All this is a prelude to Richie’s trying to kill Joey, not in spite of, but precisely because of the fact that they are brothers (Richie never got as far in the mob as he wanted to, he says, because his family tie to his crazy brother held him back, just like getting married would). But by the end of the film — the last scene — being a married husband/father/family man is just as hollow as Richie’s life was — and retrospectively, it always was this hollow. Cronenberg rejects and undermines what is to me the one most absolutely offensive thing about all of Spielberg’s films (and about all of Spike Lee’s films too, for that matter): the absolute insistence on taking on the responsibilities of fatherhood, and thus restoration of a 1950s nuclear family, as an unquestionable and totally redemptive gesture. I hated that insistence before I had children; and now that I am a father, I hate it even more. The hollowness of the final scene of A History of Violence — the son getting out a setting for the place of the now-returned father at the dinner table — is devastating in its absolute oppressive rightness.