Our Story So Far: A History Of Violence (2005)

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There’s a scene in A History of Violence where Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) comforts his daughter in the aftershocks of a nightmare, he tells her, “There’s no such thing as monsters”. It’s a tender yet quietly unsettling moment - whilst Tom may not be lying to her, we can’t help but sense he isn’t telling her the whole truth. It perfectly foreshadows a story which seems simple, but hides a much more complicated view of humanity.

David Cronenberg is widely considered to be the master of body horror and for good reason, few other filmmakers have shown such fervent dedication to fleshing out our fears of the human anatomy than him: from the bombastic mutations of The Fly, to the intimate augmentations of Crash. If the body is a temple, it is one that the Canadian auteur has dedicated his career to desecrating with fearless abandon.

This is why initially A History of Violence may seem like an outlier in Cronenberg’s filmography; trading the outlandish worlds of sci-fi and horror, for a functionally minimalist noir/thriller - that is to say, no one has a gun that shoots human teeth. However, Cronenberg is just as concerned with the body in this film as he is in any other, and it too centres around a grotesque transformation that reveals a violating truth about the human makeup.

Cronenberg’s obsession with mutilating that which we consider sacred, is born out of his desire to dissect our internalised taboos. Throughout his filmography, he jabs at the parts of ourselves we don’t like to think about - organs, blood, fluids - exposing the crude irony of feeling disgust at things that form part of our very being. In A History of Violence, Cronenberg looks to do the same with another deeply human impulse: violence.

Throughout the film, we watch as family man Tom Stall transforms, or regresses, into Joey Cusack: a man defined by his aptitude for killing. His transformation is metaphysical, the only discernable physical change we can see is a once soft light behind his eyes slowly growing absent. Mortensen’s uncanny ability to seamlessly transition between sensitive and rugged masculinity, one he mastered in his role as Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, is weaponised to great effect here.

As such, it would be easy to file this film under “yet another white male rage movie”. However, that would overlook the various ways that A History of Violence subverts, and even transcends the limited idea of violence as a purely masculine energy. Cronenberg isn’t interested in categorising violence: who it is perpetrated by, whether it is right or wrong; instead, by distilling it cinematically into its purest form, he forces us to re-examine our own relationship with it.

The masterful shoot-out in the diner is punctuated by a shot of a man lying face-down, sputtering his final breaths through a gaping hole of viscera. It’s a revolting image trapped within a heroic context - whilst Tom’s actions may seem justifiable, righteous even given the murderous cruelty we witnessed these men display at the film’s opening, we still squirm in our seats at this visual. By teasing an audience’s desire to see this man be punished - Cronenberg proves that the desire for violence exists in all of us, then by showing us the consequences of that desire, he demonstrates that violence is yet another part of our biology that we are not wholly aligned with.

The violent transformation of Tom Stall is one of grim inevitability, yet the real horror lies not in his own degradation, but watching it happen to those he loves. In the wake of his acts, both his wife and son demonstrate not only their capacity to commit violence, but to find small glimpses of satisfaction in it: whether through the domination of an agressor, or in newfound sexual desire. By the time we reach the film’s end, the family is united as much by unconditional love, as by mutual acceptance of their own violent urges.

There is a much more dreadful truth that Tom Stall held from his daughter, not just that there are monsters in this world, or that he might be one of them, but that everyone - including her - has the means to be just like him. 

Ewan Shand
Film writer and video essayist