David Cronenberg's "A History of Violence" (film vs. graphic novel, and other matters)

From Forum With No Name:

TonyaJ: I'm very impressed by what Cronenberg did with this film - the themes operate on more than one level; love of family, deceit within families; the myth of the perfect family; how violence can shape our lives and make liars of us. It's also a deeply-felt thriller (you could even call it a violent fable) which poses hard questions, such as can the violence Joey Cusack/Tom Stall left behind but resurfaces be more honorable than the violence at the very beginning of the film, where two low-life drifters on a seemingly endless roadtrip of utter depravity kill at random, not to protect, but in a self-serving way? Whereas Stall kills them to protect his business and employees? Also,what are the limits of forgiveness?

What's even more interesting is that you don't really need to know why Joey walked away from it all, though you can read between the lines. Perhaps first it was fear of retribution, but can a man who was once evil redeem himself by living a good life that he believed to be a true one?

The ending of this film was utterly brilliant. Maria Bello as Edie could have been starting to utter a number of phrases as Tom gazes at her, "Where have you been," "Welcome Home," "What are you doing back here," and he can only wait for whether it's forgiveness or condemnation. I wouldn't say the ending is ambiguous but it's left unfinished. Wonderful acting by everyone concerned and William Hurt's short but effective turn a real treat.

We talked about the sex scenes to some extent in Film and Politics, and some of the ideas that came up was that the second sex act was not loving but hostile, where Bello was challenging Joey to show how good he was, sexually--trying him out in place of her husband, in effect (well, this is more my version of what happened; the group may have come up with various other interpretations). Some of them believe the first sex act had unhealthy implications too, but I don't agree--felt it was a bit of role playing and oral sex (someone--don't remember who--noted that Cronenberg acted out the sex to the two actors, which freaked them out no end).

Harris and Hurt played their roles in a humorous vein, but I don't see it as less threatening for all that; if anything, I felt the clowning was more unsettling because it implied confidence in its ability to mete out violence.

The ending--David E's interpretation I largely agree with. The son does seem dismayed at the possibility of genetic inheritance. I don't think Bello accepts Joey at all; I think that's a very uneasy truce there, that the final image is full of tension. One implication is that it's only a matter of time before Joey turns on them all, and the son has to face off against the father.

Browsed through the graphic novel, incidentally; found the fight sequences more believable in the film. Noticed that Bello's character is a plain housewife in the novel (and not a lawyer, as in the film), and is treated more of a prop than the social and psychological equal Bello plays. The novel's latter part is grotesque beyond believability, and I think Cronenberg (or the scriptwriter) is right to cut much of it out; and there is the novel's conceit that Joey and his brother are kids who manage to outfight and outsmart the mob and are never part of it--that's a real stretch of credibility (the film implies that Joey is a fully initiated member, which I prefer--it explains where he got his gun and hand-to-hand combat training).

Finally, the novel has none of the sex. Cronenberg added that, and I think it improves the story--and Bello's role in it--immeasurably.

Tonya J: One thing I don't agree with is that Joey might turn on his whole family. It's plain, at least to me, from the point where he comes in the door after the interlude with his brother and sees his family starting dinner that he's trying to feel out whether he'll be accepted back into the fold. I get no sense of malevolence from him. And in the absence of any action on their mother's part, the children offer the first olive branches or indications of acceptance; the dinner plate put out for him, the food handed to him. Maybe a father who deceived them is better than no father at all?

I don't think Maria Bello's look signifies much acceptance. No, there's not much malevolence on Viggo's face as he enters the room--but you have to remember that each time his alter-ego surfaces, there's precious little warning. His old self seems to come out easier each time, and each time his new self has less and less control over each eruption. Then you also have to remember the propensity for violence flows through the son's blood as well, and that was also recently released, it's implied, by his father's example. Right now their outbursts of violence are justified by extreme circumstances (bullying, threat to life and loved ones), but for how long? There's a lot of tension in that family (which the little girl is blessedly unaware of--but not for long), and if violence erupts again, it'll probably come out of that very tension.

TonyaJ: Yup, I got the whole son thing but there's a part of me that wishes they could go back to the way they were before the incident in the diner, but as you point out the new self comes out at times of extreme stress (but I'm wondering what his family could possibly do to trigger that?).

Any number of things, from the wife saying she's leaving him to the son saying he's gay to someone cracking up the car. Right now his other self only surfaces in dire need--but can we be sure that'll always be the case? A gun just sits there, waiting; sooner or later, it's going to be used.

(Postscript: Bill Krohn, in A_Film_By, had these thoughts:

Cronenberg is only pessimistic from a humanist perspective. He is optimistic from his own perspective, which is Gnostic. Let's not forget that Gnositicism is the most anti-humanist of religions: it considers the created world - Nature - to be a mistake and a prison from which our individual pneumae are struggling to get back to the Hidden God, who did not create this mess, and lives at an infinite distance from it. The god or gods who rule this world (the Archons) are prison wardens who are keeping us here, as portrayed in Kafka's novels.


The leap from the Gnosticism of Videodrome and Naked Lunch to the ideas contained in A History of Violence is a leap of auteurist faith, in a way, but I think it explains a few things.


The big question for interpreting this film is: Is the ending a happy ending or an unhappy one? The logical possibilities are:


1) It's a good thing. Tom's evil past has erupted, threatening his family's happiness, and he has been forced to eliminate the threat. Now things can be as they were.


2) It's a bad thing. The virus of Tom's violent past has infected his wife, who now likes rough sex, and his son, whose pacifism is a thing of the past. Nothing will ever be as it was before.


3) It's a mixed bag. The family has survived the threat, but their illusions are shattered. They will carry on, but they will have to live with their new knowledge.


4) It's a good thing. They were sleepwalking through a state of Innocence that had to be destroyed. Their awakening has reintroduced passion into Tom and Edie's sex life and saved them from the fate the son prophesied for himself and, implicitly, his parents: boredom, infidelity, alcoholism.


5) It's a bad thing because they're going to fall back into denial of their instincts. They have returned to their "dirty water," like Orphee and Euridyce at the end of Cocteau's Orphee.


(4) and (5) would be analogs of a Gnostic reading, with the rediscovery of atavistic impulses that had been buried by Tom's conversion (he does say he was "born again") taking the place of the mystical awakening sought by Gnostics. I think there is a lot in modern culture - the "edge culture" that Cronenberg's films are part of - to support one or both of these readings, which are ironic with respect to 1) and 2). In other words, (2) is the humanist unhappy ending, but Cronenberg may consider it a happy ending (4); (1) is the humanist happy ending, but Cronenberg may consider it an unhappy ending (5).


I believe that irony was operative in Videodrome and Naked Lunch as it is in Orphee, where the happy ending is a debacle from the point of view of Death and Heurtebise, and I guess I believe it's operative here, although as usual Cronenberg leaves it up to the audience how they will read the ending.


The only film where he actually tried to point up a happy ending in a tragedy is The Fly. It originally ended with the birth of Geena Davis'child, who turns out to be a marvellous insect-human version of the Star Child in 2001: A Space Odyssey (that great Gnostic film). Barry Diller made him cut the ending after it was shot so that the film ends with Davis killing the mutated Seth.


But Cronenberg has always been there to suggest in interviews that the horrors in his films aren't horors, and I can't think of any Cronenberg film where weird sex, in particular, is seen as a bad thing. He usually says something to the effect that the various forms of monstrous coupling may be an evolutionary leap forward. In A History of Violence, it's both: a regression to atatvism and an evolution to some higher form of Innocence, where there is no disconnect between "Joey" and "Tom."


Maybe this would be (6): the Gnostic (or para-Gnostic) analog to the "mixed bag" of (3), only seen from a perspective where the fact that they will live with their new knowledge will be a good thing. Of course, they might eventually turn into the parents of Jon Benet Ramsey, who had an SM room in their basement where her body was found....)

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