- David Cronenberg's A History of Violence
University of Toronto Press has begun a series called Canadian Cinema of books each devoted to a single Canadian film. Calgary communications [End Page 476] professor Bart Beaty's essay-length study of David Cronenberg's A History of Violence (2005) is a good, if not altogether obvious, place for the series to have begun. Cronenberg is the most widely recognized and intensely discussed of all Canadian film directors. He was also long commercially in eclipse and sinking into irrelevance until, in 2005, he took a job-for-hire at Hollywood's New Line studio adapting a crime-story graphic novel, A History of Violence by John Wagner and Vincent Locke. The book was so obscure that Cronenberg plausibly denies that he knew of its existence until he was well into his revisions with the screenwriter, Josh Olson. The resulting film was an immediate popular and critical success, leading eventually to Oscar nominations and to the restoration of the director's commercial viability, and he promptly followed it with another crime film also starring Viggo Mortensen, Eastern Promises (2007) set in the midst of the Russian mob in London.
Beaty is forthright when detailing the role of History of Violence in reanimating Cronenberg's career (and his past resorting to hiring himself out), but he feels the obligation academic Canadian critics do when an important director detours southward - to bring Cronenberg's film back into the Canadian fold interpretively. This is an especially interesting problem because US critics were swift to embrace A History of Violence as a bulletin board on which to pin in their protests against the war in Iraq and other political features of the Bush presidency. Though usually standoffish about political entanglements involving his films, Cronenberg this time allowed that his movie had such 'undertones or overtones.' The film's story fits the need for a critical allegory of American violence like a glove: an Indiana husband and father, Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), running a modest main street luncheonette, one night is forced to defend his staff and customers from two vicious wandering thugs by killing both of them with dazzling efficiency. Tom gains not just local but brief national fame as an American hero. However, the media coverage attracts the attention of a Philadelphia gangster, Carl Fogerty (Ed Harris), who comes to the town claiming to Tom's face that he is really Joey Cusak, a murderous hood Fogerty knew twenty years before and who horribly scarred his face. After a campaign harassing the Stall family, a gun battle in the family's front yard leaves Fogerty and his companions dead on the lawn, and Tom exposed to his family at least, as Joey. His wife, Edie (Maria Bello), who starts the film as Tom's supportive and still sexually frisky spouse of twenty years, throws Tom/Joey out of the house. He is compelled to confront his past and that means killing his mob boss brother (William Hurt) at his lavish Philadelphia mansion along with his crew of henchmen. The film ends in an ambiguous and wordless reconciliation of Tom (or is it Joey?) and the Stalls.
Beaty's path for conveying so American a story back to Canada is complicated, feels like a big effort, and is not persuasive. It provides him an [End Page 477] opportunity for a detailed and probing paraphrase of and commentary on the whole film virtually scene by scene. Beaty hunts allusions to assorted Westerns, film noirs, and thrillers, he ponders the film's staccato narration and faintly oeneric features of the film's mise en scène, and he peppers his observations with quotes from the director's DVD-release commentary. In the end Beaty concludes that Cronenberg is really just 'masquerading' as a genre filmmaker, and in fact is putting on all manner of masks just like his protagonist - finally the film only 'masquerades as a critique of American culture.' Instead of accusing Cronenberg of refusing to commit to his material, or to the film...