A History of Violence (David Cronenberg, 2005) is akin to a screaming bullet tearing through flesh with the sole goal of revealing the mangled bloody mess that resides beneath it. Or, to put in a slightly less graphic way, it’s about the various facades we as Americans put up in order to hide that in which we truly are. And the implication in this movie is that what we truly are is violent (hence the title, A History of Violence). Everything else is a façade to hide this. Marriage. Family. Police protection. Small-town niceties. The “good-mornin’s” and the “how-ya-do’s?” The white picket fences. The slogans. The entire “American Dream.” All of it is a phony façade that hides and maintains our naturally violent selves.
This serious proposition is captured in the riveting opening scene, which, if for no other reason, I’d like to point out because I really like opening scenes. I have a “thing” for them, you might say. And just like any other opening scene that’s worth it’s salt, this one is a microcosm of the entire movie. First, we see an image of the outside of a building. Bricks. Siding. A closed door (doorways are an important visual rhyme throughout). In short, we see a façade. The next image we see is two ominous looking men emerge from the inside of this building, exposing themselves to the light of day. And finally, the scene concludes with a sudden act of needless gun violence performed by one of the men. Façade + Exposure = Violence.
So goes the rest of A History of Violence, a suspenseful drama that is at times intense, at times funny, at times shocking, at times explosively violent, and even at times sexy. It’s technically taut. The performances are memorable. And the sound design is impeccable. The aftereffect is a disturbing movie that mostly examines the gap between the façade’s it’s characters raise, and the truths that lie beneath them. For example, there’s a scene late in the movie where the father tells his son, “We don’t solve problems by hitting people.” The son responds by making a mean wisecrack, and then, SMACK! Father hits son. Like a child first realizing his parents are actually people too, this surprising moment acts as an obvious demonstration of the gap between façade and truth. The contradiction between saying and doing.
These themes are articulated in many of the filmmaker’s choices, including, but not limited to, the style of acting. It’s not quite melodrama, but it’s definitely not realism either. The performances exist somewhere between these two poles, creating a sort of half-real world, which is a perfect tone to comment on the façade vs. natural elements. Adding yet another layer to this is the hometown in which Viggo Mortensen’s character is originally from. That choice is specifically Philadelphia. I mention this, because it could’ve realistically been any other city. New York. Chicago. Miami. Los Angeles. Any big city where we could imagine a mob syndicate being located. But the choice is Philadelphia, and this, of course, speaks to the themes of façade vs. truth in a very sardonic way. On the surface— on the façade— we know Philadelphia as “the City of Brotherly Love.” Sounds great. But underneath that, we know that Philadelphia is one of the most violent cities in the world.
And what I’m left with in the end is an unanswerable question that Cronenberg poses with this movie. That is, are we naturalized to be violent, or is violence natural? If you’re an optimist you might say we are naturalized. That, however difficult it may be, violence is escapable and avoidable. On the other hand, you may say that violence is indeed natural, and indeed inescapable. That we’re just born bad. Maybe so. But regardless of what your answer may be, one can’t deny that we tend to sweep these nasty things under the rug and out of sight behind an artificial façade, in a desperate attempt to pretend they don’t exist. This, perhaps, is more dangerous than what actually lies beneath.
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