A History of Violence is based on a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke. This is no obscure, film noir-ish high concept special F/X tale as we saw in Sin City. This film version of a graphic novel, while violently explicit, is philosophical. It explores the nature of violence in ordinary people, personified by those in hometown middle-America, leaving us with more questions than answers. It is also possible to view the film theologically
Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is a mild-mannered, happily married man with a teen son, Jack (Ashton Holmes) and a young daughter, Sarah (Heidi Hays). He owns a small diner in a small town in Indiana. One day, two really bad guys (we know this from the beginning sequence of the film) come in at closing time intending to rob the diner. When one of the men attacks the waitress, Tom fights them both until one of them stabs him in the foot - all the way through. Tom then grabs one of their guns and shoots both of them dead. Instantly, Tom is a hero
Tom’s face is on television and in newspapers everywhere. His wife Edie (Maria Bello) accompanies him home from the hospital. As he mumbles a few words to a reporter, Edie spots a luxury black sedan parked across the street. Edie thinks its more reporters. It isn’t.
When Tom goes back to work, a well-dressed man in sunglasses, accompanied by two other men, comes in the diner. The man’s name is Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) and he calls Tom “Joey Cusack”, you know, from Philadelphia. Everyone but Fogarty believes that Tom is who he says he is: the adopted son of supposedly dead parents; a peaceful family man and pillar of the community. Fogarty removes his sunglasses to remind “Joey” how he almost blinded him years before using barbed wire.
Meanwhile, Jack gets bullied at school and refuses to take the bully’s bait and fight.
The sheriff warns Fogarty to stay away, but he returns, stalking Edie and Sarah at the mall. Edie gets a restraining order, but it’s no use. Fogarty and his goons appear at the house and want to take Tom to Philadelphia; they have taken Jack hostage and will release him only if Tom goes with them. A violent scuffle takes place and once again Tom uses one of their guns to kill the two bodyguards. Jack runs into the house and grabs a shotgun. Just as Fogarty and Tom face off, Tom admits he is Joey. Jack overhears this as he pulls the trigger and kills Fogarty.
And this is barely half the story.
The killings in the film seem righteous because they are in self-defense. But at one point the sheriff comes to ask Tom about his identity and all that has happened. He asks: if these violent killings are righteous, why don’t they make sense?
By contrasting Tom’s story with Jack’s dilemma at school the film subtly asks us: from whence does violence arise and when does it ever make sense?
A Theological Lens
Tom wears a cross throughout most of the film. At first it seems to be jewelry, but the cross continually finds its way out of the folds of his shirt and lays there for us to see.
As Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ, showed us last year, Jesus suffered violence at the hands of the Romans and never uttered a word in his own defense. Jesus gave an example of pacifism and non-violence that inspired Christians from the day he died until the Emperor Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the <st1:place>Roman Empire</st1:place> by the Edict of Milan in 313 A.D. This recognition necessitated and justified Christians, who became Roman citizens, to take up arms in the name of the Emperor. State-sponsored violence in self-defense, was rationalized by Christian philosophers as the “just war doctrine” (see paragraph 2302-2317 of The Catechism of the Catholic Church.) However, the Church today has clarified this teaching: war is a last resort. We are, instead, to make peace and avoid war.
To choose peace over violence is the struggle of the grown man, Tom; it is the boy Jack’s dilemma. St. Paul speaks eloquently of a similar conflict struggling in himself
“We know that the law is spiritual; but I am carnal, sold under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. So then it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me” (Romans 8:17-20 RSV)
Names, water, the cross, the family, and sharing food are all themes and motifs in the film and we find them in Scripture as well.
The cross around Tom’s neck recalls the resurrection of Jesus and the fullness of the Paschal Mystery, rather than the crucifix with his tortured body on it which recalls in a more focused way Jesus’ passion and death. Tom’s cross asks him and us: what difference does my love, my life, and death, and resurrection, make in your life and in the world? Perhaps the filmmaker is asking us: is Jesus still relevant today?
Tom says that he is “Tom” now; he has spent three years in the desert becoming Tom. He tells his wife that meeting her is what saved him. Water is a constant motif in the film,from a water cooler, to bottles, to a lake where Tom finally washes himself and puts on clean clothes. Water is mentioned over 800 times in the Bible, and is a symbol of cleansing, rebirth, and grace.
When Edie realizes that Stall is not Tom’s last name, she is crushed because she and their children have lost their identity. What’s in a name? And if a person falls, even after a long time of trying to do right, can he still be saved? Who will forgive him? What does wearing a cross mean to Tom?
The film actually begins in Tom's diner, where people gather in peace, and share food together. "See you at church," says one man as he leaves the diner. The final scene is the family meal. Tom arrives home, in clean clothes, while the family is eating in silence. And in silence Sarah gets up, takes Tom’s plate, and sets his place among them.
The Lens of Violence
A History of Violence is about a man’s redemption, a seeming fall from grace, and his restoration to his family and life. But the inner core of the film explores the nature of violence, and our human propensity to revert to violence; even when we have sworn off it, we don’t forget how to be violent, whether physically and or verbally.
In the film’s moral universe, both Tom and Jack have to struggle with the choice between violence and peace to solve their immanent problems. Following Jack’s story, it’s easy to see how a person can get pushed to the breaking point and become violent – but it is a choice. Tom, after a violent youth, chooses peace. But in defending his work place, customers, family and self twenty years later, he easily relapses into violence to obtain a very uncertain peace. Tom and Edie’s changing relationship is shown first in an affectionate scene of intimacy and is then contrasted in a heated, almost animal-like sex scene. This symbolizes how close love and hate are to one another, and how passion can easily make us lose the qualities that make us human.
Director David Cronenberg, known for horror and gore, does not disappoint. And make no mistake; this is a graphically violent movie.
Mortensen plays the complex Tom with detachment. He is the epitome of the co-existence of peace and aggression we all possess. This is fine acting because he makes us wonder who he really is from the very beginning. Ed Harris as Fogarty easily persuades us that under the veneer of an expensive appearance and sunglasses, his soul is as ugly as his scarred eye.
At the end of the day, I think A History of Violence questions the nature of human violence while telling us that violence begets violence - that using violence to make peace never endures. The film also asks if a violent nature is the result of nature or nurture, in people and in society. I also wondered how much a film like this contributes to the culture of violence that we live in: domestic, civil, governmental, and religious. However, because the film seems to affirm that if a person chooses violence as a life-style, as a way to solve problems, there will be lasting consequences. Violence changes us and marks us forever. For example, Edie calls the sheriff – once. After that, the characters take charge. Maybe there wasn’t time to call the sheriff; the thing is no one even tries.
Although this is an uncomfortable film, it has ideas that deserve reflection and conversation should you choose to see it. The film ends in a silent tableau. It is the key to the whole film.