David Cronenberg’s psychological thriller, A History of Violence (2005), treats violence as a form of inherited disease infecting and permeating suburbia and the nuclear family. The film’s plot follows the owner of a diner and family man Tom Stall, whose idyllic existence in the ‘American Dream’ is threatened after he defends his diner from violent criminals. Despite the concerning precision and skill with which he thwarts these villains, he is celebrated as a local hero within his small community. Soon after, however, his calculated violence provokes accusations from a threatening stranger who attempts to reveal Tom to be the criminal Joey Cusack, unraveling Tom Stall’s identity with the possibility of his repressed existence as a deranged mobster.
Cronenberg’s films feature unconscious desires or repressed psyches, visualized in ways that have often been considered grotesque or extreme. Although A History of Violence transcends his usual ‘body horror’ approach in its seemingly straightforward presentation of narrative and setting, the film’s violence and its effects upon the family and community are dealt with in an appropriately gruesome and morally complex Cronenberg fashion. With regards to the notion of violence as an inherited disease, it would seem that violence continually bubbles under the surface of the small town suburban setting of Millbrook, Indiana, its pressure increased by the stagnancy of a town stuck in time (quite literally, as the clock Tom passes on his way to work always tells the time as a quarter past one).
This is a suburban dream town in which everybody seems to be on a first-name basis with everybody else, people look out for each other and high school bullies are the only threats to happiness. In other words, Millbrook is too perfect and the purposefully overbearing use of foreshadowing prepares us for an explosion of violence. Whether it is Tom comforting his daughter by telling her there’s no such thing as monsters, or the cook at Tom’s diner divulging a story about a “crazy-ex” who stabbed him with a fork after she had a nightmare in which he was in fact “some demented killer”. The punchline to the cook’s story is that he was married to this woman for six years, much to the amusement of Tom and a customer, before the cook says “Nobody’s perfect, Tom”. Even a community this perfect has violent fantasies; the reality of which, in all its bloody, bone-crushing glory, savagely undercuts notions of heroism and forces both the characters and audiences to confront the violence also inherent in American life.
After Tom’s act of “heroism”, violence begins to permeate the suburban home, notably in a scene in which Tom hits his son after getting into a fight at school, and in what could be described as a scene of “quasi-rape” between Tom and his wife Edie. Edie seems more than willing to take part in intercourse that blurs the lines between phantasy and reality, previously shown through their high school sweetheart role play. Yet once the truth is revealed, what could have been a dark sadomasochistic phantasy becomes reality and she struggles to live with the dilemma.
We have already seen evidence of Edie’s complicity toward Tom’s self-defense when she comes to collect Tom from the hospital, as Tom says “You as sick of hearing about me as I am?” to which Edie intimately replies “I like it”. For her, the change is exciting, her husband is a hero and life isn’t as mundane as it seems. Yet the realization that she has essentially been living with a stranger this whole time shatters the suburban family dynamic as violence gradually infects every aspect of their wholesome union.
This change in the family dynamic is exemplified in the final scene of A History of Violence, as Tom walks in on his family having dinner together after killing his brother Richie – an attempt to kill his past, but we do not learn whether is successful in this. Although his children set a place for him at the table, the lingering fear and uncertain looks shared between Tom and Edie suggest that (for them at least) the suburban paradise, and all the homely innocence it entails, is truly dead.
Cronenberg’s insistence on lingering upon both the immediate and long-term effects of graphic violence in A History of Violence is needed to break the painfully suburban and idealistic trance that we are falling into. The US invasion of Iraq and the death of Saddam Hussein brought new life to the concept of the war at home and our fascination with it as home viewing reveals the rotten core of the American dream.
Cronenberg’s Canadian nationality brings an outsider’s perspective to his dissection of the outdated, conservative staples of the ‘wholesome’ American suburbia, and reveals the history of violence that perpetually simmers beneath the façade.