Sunday, May 10, 2015

A History of Violence

SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

What are those sayings about history? There’s “Those who don’t learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.” And then there’s “You can’t escape the past.” Let’s not forget, “His past caught up with him.” I guess all of the above could be used in connection with David Croenenberg’s A History of Violence. But, the title is ironic, since the violence here is not a thing of the past, but takes place in the present.

As the film opens we see two men, looking bored and tired, getting ready to check out of a motel. The younger one, Billy (Greg Bryk) straightens out the chair sitting outside the room. It is an ironic act, since these two create nothing but chaos. The older man, Leland (Stephen McHattie) goes into the motel office and later exits it. He tells Billie to go back in to fill up their water bottle. It is then we see that these two are sociopathic killers. It is not the men who have checked out – Leland has permanently “checked out” the motel clerk and housekeeper, who lie dead in their own blood on the floor. Then, the motel clerk’s young daughter appears from behind a door, and Billy, with a smile reaches for the gun tucked in the waist of his pants. The death of the child shows that in the world of this film, innocence does not survive.

Right after the killing of the child, there is a cut to the Stalls’ daughter screaming in her bedroom because she is afraid of monsters. She is told there are no monsters. This scene is a foreshadowing, because there are monsters, and they are headed their way. Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is a loving father and husband, living in a Middle America town in Indiana. He looks content as he heads for work at the small diner he owns. It has a sign that reads “friendly service,” but that’s not what we’ll find on this day. One of the workers there says he used to date a woman who had a dream about being attacked by a demented killer. She stuck a fork in his shoulder during one of these dreams. He says he then married her, and the marriage lasted for six years. This scene shows the fear of violence, but also the attraction to the excitement that it creates. The boredom of the killers (when they are not committing crimes), is echoed by Tom’s son, Jack (Ashton Holmes), a high school student, as he sits with girlfriend. They break the tedium of this peaceful town by smoking pot, an illegal act. He lays out their unpromising future, where they will grow up, get jobs, and become alcoholics. 

Leland and Billy, the demented killer times two from the aforementioned woman’s dream, arrive in the town, showing how nightmares don’t only exist in a dream state. The peaceful order is overturned when the two killers walk in and try to rob the restaurant. Tom tries to be diplomatic. But when the waitress tries to leave, Billy manhandles her. Leland tells Billy to kill her to show they mean business. Tom then transforms into a  killing machine, slamming a pot of coffee into the side of Leland’s face, grabbing his gun, and then shooting Billy in the chest and Leland in the head. 

The publicity created by Tom’s heroics draws demons from Tom’s past. Strangers in a black car are seen outside the Stalls’ home. These new scary men now also appear at the diner. They are lead by Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris). He starts to call Tom by another name, Joey Cusack. The Stalls tell the sheriff, who stops the strangers in their car, and finds out their names. He discovers that they are connected to organized crime back east. He can’t get information about Joey, but learns of a Richie Cusack, who is a leader of an Irish-American crime family in Philadelphia. Later at the local mall, Fogarty shows up and tells Edie Stall (Maria Bello) that her husband is not who he says he is. He is Joey Cusack and she should ask him about his brother, the criminal, Richie. He then says she should ask her husband “How come he’s so good at killing people.”

Jack Stall was earlier taunted by a school bully. The young Stall defused that confrontation with his words. When the bully starts in on him again, Jack severely beats him. When he argues with his father about the incident, Tom says that “in this house we don’t solve problems by hitting people.” Jack’s response is, “No, in this house we kill people.” Tom, undermining what he just said, slaps Jack, showing his propensity for violence. Jack’s actions show that he may have inherited his father’s ways.

Fogarty and his men show up at Tom’s house. They have Jack and demand that Tom return to Philadelphia with them. Fogarty has a scarred face and a visionless eye on his left side. We later learn that “Joey” did this to him, and now seeks revenge against Cusack, wanting an eye for an eye. Tom at this point drops any pretension of being the mild-mannered Tom. He has a cold, cocky look about him. He beats one man to death and shoots the other. Fogarty shoots Tom in the shoulder, but then Jack shoots Fogarty to death.

Edie confronts Tom in the hospital, and he admits to his past. He says that he thought Joey was dead, and that he had killed him. But obviously he still survives as was shown how Joey’s lethal instincts easily kick in when aroused. He is a sort of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Edie is literally sick when she hears the truth and she and their son are angry because of the lies. Edie, however, defends her husband when the sheriff shows up to question the couple about what transpired. What follows is a revealing sex scene. Edie is angry, curses Tom, and slaps him. He grabs her by the throat and they struggle. She then pulls him close and forcefully kisses him. They have aggressive intercourse on the stairway. After they are done, Edie looks disgusted, not only with Tom, but also with herself. Here again, attraction and revulsion for violence seem to coexist. This scene contrasts with an earlier lovemaking scene, where Tom must clear their younger daughter’s playthings off of the bed to have sex. Edie comes out of the bathroom dressed in a cheerleader’s uniform. She flashes her panties, which he later removes, and she says, “There are no wives here tonight.” Tom initially seems embarrassed. The images suggest that below the playful innocence there lurk primal drives.

Tom receives a call from his brother, Richie (William Hurt, in an Oscar-nominated, funny/scary short performance), who threatens to visit his brother. To protect his family, Tom drives to Philadelphia and meets one of his brother’s men at a bar. They travel to Richie’s extravagant home in the suburbs. Richie asks his brother, “When you dream, are you Joey?” Again, the dream image is invoked, with the suggestion that there is a monster lurking below the waking surface. Because Joey tried to kill a made mob man (Fogarty), Richie got into trouble with the crime bosses. He says Joey has to die to make things right. But, Joey kills Richie’s men, and then kills his brother. He then goes to the lake behind the house to wash off the blood. He may be able to rinse off the external gore, but he can’t make his soul clean.

He returns home, supposedly as Tom again. His daughter sets him a plate at the dinner table. The couple’s faces look grim, shattered. Tears roll down Edie’s face and it appears as if she is praying. They eat in silence. Can Eden be restored after the fall? Was there an Eden to start with? Will they recover? What do you think?

Croenenberg seems to be saying that we should all remember that under our so-called civilized society, as a race, we all have a history of violence.

Next week’s film is The Girl with a Pearl Earring.

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