A History of Violence is nearly simplistic. This is the American fable of the vigilante. A man’s family is threatened. He takes action, reluctantly. The villains suffer. They refuse to repent. Perhaps the man is tortured. He wins out, and his family is safe.
Or: he wins out, but his family is already dead. “I’m Batman.” “I’m the Punisher.” “I’m Mad Max.”
The alternate is perhaps the easy out from a narrative standpoint. It’s cleaner, not having to manage both a vigilante life and a family life. It’s just as easy to imagine a scenario in which a man’s family is threatened, but not killed; it’s simple to imagine a threat of sufficient magnitude as to generate this sort of violent revenge. We’re heartless crafters of fiction. Kill one member of the family, and leave the rest alive.
The alternate is certainly more common. It’s almost a binary choice. Either your family is alive, and you are not a vigilante, or your family is dead, and you are. Vigilante is not crime-fighter: Starman had his father, and many heroes had their spouses. Superman had his adoptive parents, and later his wife. It’s the violence which seems incompatible with normal relations.
Batman violates the norm, and that’s part of what makes him interesting in skilled hands. He works toward family in his inept, halting way. Batgirl. Another Batgirl. Robins. A love/hate relationship with the Huntress.
Cronenberg violates the norm. It’s a really simple story, and it’s told really simply. Also: unflinching. It’s possible to believe that there won’t be blood until, oh, five minutes into the movie. After that there’s no doubt. It’s the simple story of what happens when violence meets a relatively normal family; yes, Tom Stall has a past, but that’s just the trick by which he has a capacity for violence (and by which violence comes to him).
Well. And it’s the necessary tweak which enables the story to rise from two-dimensional comics or film and move into verisimilitude. Which, after all, is the point of the movie. In an odd sort of a way, it’s Cool World without the bad acting. What would it be like, to be a cartoon character in our world?
Tom Stall finds out that it’s difficult. Maybe untenable. You can interpret the ending as you wish; the propulsive thrust of the film scatters into a million pieces around that dinner table. The family falls apart. The family rebuilds. The family is never the same. The narrative arc runs from the unspeakable simplicity of the choice two thugs make at a motel to the shattering range of choices the Stalls have in the end.
Shattering worlds. That’s the Cronenberg trademark, isn’t it? This is no eXistenZ, with a million overlapping frames. It is, though, a movie about leaving one reality and entering another. Tom left his criminal world behind before the movie begins; later, he leaves his family life behind. The transitions are just as acute as anything Cronenberg’s ever done.
The other Cronenberg trademark is the search for intimacy. All Cronenberg protagonists want to make connections. (Many of them fail.) “Maybe the next one, darling… Maybe the next one…” Tom and his wife want to preserve their connection, which is just as interesting from another direction. There’s the sex, which goes from fantasy to harsh reality over the course of two scenes. There’s the ability, or lack thereof, to talk. It’s a match with the rest of Cronenberg’s work.
Speaking of connections: one of the unanswered questions, at the end, is the nature of Tom’s connection to his son. I’m left wondering; will Jack’s new found capacity for violence bring him closer to Tom? Will it be a reminder of the reality Tom’s fleeing? Unanswered.
I didn’t see enough movies last year, but this one was my favorite.