Unmasking (the) America(n)
Two of the largest influences on postwar American life were the virtual invention of the teenager and self-help. Something for nothing underlies the idea behind each development. In the first instance, teens are promised that they can retain their innocence while gathering experience; the booty of adulthood with none of the burdens. In the second, a fresh start restores a kind of innocence, with goodness a corollary to self-improvement.
Both these notions inform and shape David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence. Teenagers and the fervently made-over share a certain denial of death, a kind of presumption of immortality. Consumerism and constant acquisition go very well with thinking that you’ll live forever, and in his new film, Cronenberg makes cunning use of the myths that lie at the center of American lives. The insistence on invulnerability has a strong element of denial; reflected in this apparently all-American story is America’s unwillingness to look at the effects it has had on the world both through overt violence and the less obvious kind.
From the opening, A History of Violence announces itself as a combination of the absurd and the grisly. Two sleazy guys emerge from the sort of sleazy roadside motel that always spells trouble in American cinema, one to settle the bill, the other to drive the ten feet in their sky-blue convertible to pick him up, their dialogue establishing them as near-parodies of noir villains. But there’s nothing amusing about the slaughter of the chambermaid and manager they’ve perpetrated, nor about their subsequent cold-blooded killing of a pre-schooler too shocked to do more than whimper. In a terrific match-cut, the gun that kills her becomes the shriek of another little girl, Sarah Stall (Heidi Hayes), who’s convinced there are monsters in her room. The gruesome part of this joke is that by the film’s end the monster turns out to be Dad.
Sarah belongs to the Stall family (even their name implies a criminal diversion), who live the perfect American life as it’s shown on television. They live in a Midwest whose very weather is preternaturally autumnal without the mess of actual leaves falling. You can only imagine a quick time-out from this fall scene for a snowy Christmas and a red, white, and blue Fourth of July. The film takes place just a few feet shy of reality, where everything is as we’re told it should be. Sarah has an older brother, Jack (Ashton Holmes), in high school and friskily cynical without actually rebelling, and good-looking parents, Tom and Edie (Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello). Dad runs a diner so folksy you’d think fast food hadn’t been invented yet, and Mom is a svelte dispenser of affection to her children and lust for her man.
When the two villains make a hit on Tom’s place, he takes them out with a professionalism that seems born of his goodness: because they’re evil and he’s not, he appears possessed of special powers. He’s celebrated locally and on television, the taciturn, modest hero. It turns out that his prowess is less of a knack than a skill, one he practiced long before he recast himself as Tom Stall.
On the surface a sometimes hamfisted action story, A History of Violence is in its details a withering comment on modern America’s need to see itself as the normative reality. The acting and dialogue convey these details, stylized and borrowed from cowboy and noir films, full of the white-hat/black-hat conventions that need no explanation. The townspeople are good, the intruders are not and must be driven out.
But the film is a concert of slight exaggerations that convey much more. The costumes, for example, whose very ordinariness is a perfect distortion of the sort of clothes an average, Midwest family would wear. In his lumberjack shirt and slightly baggy jeans and serving behind the counter, Tom has a bit of the apron-stringed impotence of Jim Backus in Rebel Without a Cause. Edie has the put-together suburban look of a newscaster. Tom and Edie sport generic crucifixes, more emblematic of regular churchgoing than of any great faith. The Stalls are the epitome of what normal American life, according to the advertising business, is supposed to look like.
But in the two sex scenes of the film, Edie’s clothes suddenly take on a whole different meaning. In the first, she arranges for the children to be gone and surprises her husband by dressing up as a cheerleader to make up, she explains, for the fact that their romance came later in life. The ensuing soixante-neuf session is like the opposite of watching children dress up to act the part in their parents’ clothes, Tom and Edie’s eagerness to create a mutual innocence that never was becomes a form of denial. This puts the lie to their post-coital spooning a return to the idealized version of married life we get from ads and television when Tom declares himself “the luckiest son of a bitch,” as Edie tells him he’s “the best man I’ve ever known.”
Their next sex scene is long after Tom’s heroism, when his shadow identity is beginning to emerge. His troubles increase when Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) arrives in town, a gangster who claims Tom is one of his own and who is seeking revenge. Like any good moll, Edie stands by her man when the sheriff tries to take him in, but once they’re alone, she pushes him away. As she runs up the stairs of their house, Tom grabs her and what seems to be a rape turns out to be rough sex she appears to want even more than he does. What’s so odd about this scene is that after the initial capture, Tom seems completely to follow her lead. When Edie pulls him aggressively towards her, it’s one of the few honest moments between them. By this time, she not only knows she’s married a hood but that he is exactly who she wants. And it’s no coincidence that she’s in a kind of business attire for this, her creamy satin sweater revealing a black bra underneath. This is like the reverse of the earlier fantasy, the revenge of the muscleman on the worldly, powerful woman. She’s essentially playing out yet another fantasy, the first time the dewy teenage ingenue, by the second a woman starting, in some ways, all over.
The need to restore the veneer of the everyday asserts itself at the end, when the family finally sit down to a meal together. Edie, Jack, and Sarah sit over meat, potatoes, peas, and carrots, Tom having gone away to finally resolve (and literally kill off) his past. The scene has an almost religious feel and plays with no dialogue, only the lush and slightly ecclesiastical score. When Tom comes in, there’s a moment of extreme tension and then Sarah makes him welcome, the family member who is no longer afraid of monsters and can accept him.
To read A History of Violence simply for its plot and content is to miss the black-on-black comedy of this film. Like Michael Haneke’s Caché, Cronenberg’s film questions the costs of comfortable societies, built as they are on the individual and collective heads of the people that had to be oppressed to create them. In both films, a seemingly perfect life is rudely interrupted by reality, and a return to an insensate state is impossible.
Although A History of Violence has some violence and gore, the film is relatively unviolent considering its subject matter. What it has is the climate of violence, in the way of, say, Blue Velvet. It is a truism that America is shaped by violence and its society built on it. A History of Violence is ultimately a film not only about trying to deny one’s real nature, but trying to remake the world to fit the illusions a man has about himself. In the wake of Abu Ghraib and as the Iraq war staggers on, what has become far more troubling is America’s willingness to justify its own violence as a way to maintain the illusions of our way of life; the insistence, in short, that Americans simply don’t take unjust actions even as proof of extraordinary renditions and further tortures continues to mount. In his overtly non-political film, Cronenberg poses all the necessary questions about the gangsterish thinking that informs a great deal of how America presents itself in the world today.