Women and children everywhere live with men who are killers. A slight exaggeration; they live in fact with modest, decent men, who killed at some point in the past as soldiers. My father was one of them. He had fought in Patton’s infantry in World War II; and though that service was a source of pride to him, the experience of it was something he kept very quiet. From hanging around when he was with his veterans’ group, I learned (under a child’s cloak of invisibility) that some men separate themselves from war by talking a lot about their soldiering, and some do it by talking little. In neither case, though, are they likely to own up to killing. Someone else must have pulled the trigger.
Our books and movies and television shows are heavily populated by those others: the heroes who did what they had to do. Every nation adores them, although few countries do it so piously as the United States. We Americans believe, as an article of faith, that every front door opens onto a frontier, where the law can’t protect women and children. Liberty Valance is always at large in our imaginations, and a big, suffering man is always around to shoot him.
But what if that defender were not a solitary gunman? What if he were instead the quiet, loving dad who had killed in his other life? How would we feel if that man, today, proved to be good at slaughter? These are the exaggerations–slight, of course–that bring shivering life to David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence.
At the film’s core are Tom and Edie Stall (Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello), a couple who love each other so intensely, and are so tender toward their kids, that you ache for every moment of their doomed happiness. As a brief yet unendurable prologue shows you, two drifters are making their way cross-country, robbing and killing with a leisurely, irritable indifference. Soon the back roads must lead them to the Stalls’ Indiana town. An autumn chill has started to settle on the landscape, which you might sense is readying itself for death. For a long time, though, the Stalls innocently believe that turning leaves are just signs of a new school year.
Their teenage son currently faces nothing worse than a locker-room bully; their little daughter sometimes worries about monsters, but only the kind that lurk in closets. Edie practices law, manages the house and flirts with her husband; and Tom, day by day, goes mildly about the business of running a Main Street diner–chatting with his handful of customers, joshing with the grill man, tidying up the two pieces of litter that are the sum of the town’s sinfulness. Every flash of the little gold cross around Tom’s neck testifies to his simple goodness, and to an imminent crucifixion.
When Cronenberg can at last wring no more foreboding out of these scenes of ordinary life, the murderers stalk into the cafe. What happens next turns the gentle paterfamilias into “American hero Tom Stall” (so the newscasters say). “I just did what anybody would do,” mutters Tom, mouthing the formula with rather less conviction than is customary. You can see from the way he flips through TV channels that he is impatient for this episode to end–which it won’t, of course. With the inevitability of a Kafka story, and with a comparably grotesque and funny precision of detail, new killers are soon replacing the old ones at Tom’s counter stools. These fresh murderers are more numerous than the first batch, more jeering and expert. Worse still, they insist they know Tom.
I’m not sure how much of this story comes straight from the source (a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke), how much was invented by screenwriter Josh Olson and how much is pure Cronenberg; but I know that A History of Violence develops with the singleness of purpose, and the rigor, of a mathematical demonstration, one that begins with a commonly accepted truth and ends with brains spattered across the floor. The style (as in Crash) is distanced, composed and lingering at first, until it gains speed and force with the story’s momentum. The action is both balanced and outrageous. Edie Stall, in happier days, plays dress-up for Tom, but later she is stripped bare; young Jack (Ashton Holmes) starts out by using his self-deprecating wit as a defense, but later he turns into an attack dog of sarcasm. Even the performers who are given scope to misbehave–Ed Harris and William Hurt, playing wise guys from one of hell’s more laughable circles–fit neatly into the film’s symmetrical equations.