Wednesday, November 30, 2005

History of Violence

History of Violence surprised me on a number of levels. Expecting a typical Hollywood film in which a quiet, unassuming man is forced to return in glory to his bad-ass past, I was pleasantly surprised. Josh Olson’s screenplay is more interested in examining the ramifications of former mob killer Tom Stall’s past upon his present than in celebrating gore (though the film certainly offers its share of bloody violence). Each member of Stall’s family must process his dark side in their own way, and in fact, the film gives us access to their feelings more than his. This is a film about a family coming to terms with a dark secret.

Yet I was also surprised by the conventional structure of the storytelling. I could see each plot twist and turn from a mile away, and I’m not one of those people who tries to outthink a movie. Though the fine acting provides a powerful emotional foundation for the story, the script follows the dictates of the screenplay bible: with each reversal more a function of storytelling requirements than arising organically from the characters’ needs and actions.

In fact, little about this film is organic. In the opening scenes everyone works just a little too hard to create “familial bliss.” Maria Bello’s character, Edie Stall, shows more affection for her teenage son during breakfast than most parents show their children on their best day. The Stall parents not only remain in love and but also act like teenagers in the bedroom. They evidence little boredom or malaise and in fact seem to embrace the routines of life. Once their perfect happiness is self-consciously (and unbelievably) established, two random rowdy guys enter Tom’s diner and stir up trouble. After entering such a carefully constructed world of the ideal suburban life, the audience is supposed to accept random?

The violence in the film didn’t particularly shock me, but perhaps this is more a factor of the inundation of violence in our culture than a commentary about this film. As Joey Cusack, Tom Stall’s abandoned mobster identity, Stall killed many men. He proves himself quite a virtuoso with killing, culminating in a bloody face-off with his former boss/brother. But Tom’s struggle with his past plays second fiddle to the drama played out at home: the sheriff who must try to get to the heart of why gangsters have shown up in town looking for Tom, Tom’s son who adopts violence to handle a bully at school, and Tom’s wife who tries to embrace the violence within him.

Watching the family fight to survive, their reconciliation results less from an honest dialogue about the truth than a mutual decision to simply move on. Edie Stall lies to the sheriff to protect her husband, Tom’s son helps him kill the bad guys, and Edie accepts Tom back into her home with a wordless look. The film does not condemn violence so much as embrace it as a necessary element for survival.

Director David Cronenberg includes graphic sexuality within this story of physical violence. While fighting with Tom, Edie succumbs to his rough advances and they fuck on the steps inside their home. The encounter is brutal, as evidenced by Edie’s bruises shown in a later scene.

The scene disturbs me because Cronenberg spends a good deal of time filming the violence of the sex but does not show us the characters commenting upon it later. Did Edie enjoy this rough sex? What percentage of the intercourse was coerced and what part was a willing subjection to Tom’s will? Is Edie discovering a latent violence within herself, or is she merely trying to understand her husband on his own terms? Are we to believe that all women enjoy being thrown around, or is this scene unique to these characters in this particular situation?

Can this scene be portrayed without political ramifications? Statistics for domestic violence are notoriously unreliable (many women keep silent due to fear and many that make a statement to the police retract their statements for the same reason). That said, one study finds that nearly 1 in 3 adult women experience at least one physical assault by a partner during adulthood ( The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network estimates that someone (male or female) is sexually assaulted every two and a half minutes (for more information about how they calculated this statistic, visit

With numbers like these, Tom’s violence towards Edie leads me to question whether Cronenberg has been responsible in his portrayal of sexual violence within the film—to what end does he incorporate this almost rape? What do the characters learn from the event? What is the audience intended to take from this scene?

I have said before that I like my movies messy, and in many ways, I find the silences within this film intriguing: allowing the actors to speak through their actions rather than their words allows for powerful and moving filmmaking. But with an issue as complicated as violence, I can’t help but wonder what statement Cronenberg wants to make: that violence is inherited? That one can never truly escape from an inherent bestiality? Or that humans themselves will go to great lengths to survive? There are no answers here, but I wouldn’t mind a more thorough examination of the questions.


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