“I am a complete Darwinian,” – David Cronenberg
For many people, 2005’s A History of Violence marked a turning point in David Cronenberg’s career. The Oscar-nominated drama seemed a world away from the director’s earlier films, offering a (deceptively) straightforward story about crime and hidden identities in bucolic Americana. Yet beneath the surface of the film’s fictional Indianan community – a heavily-stylized idea of an American small town – there is a a capacity for violence barely held in check by the social contract. It is in this capacity for violence, specifically how violence relates to identity where the film’s hidden complex comes from. On one hand, the film postulates that violence – in all of its forms – absolutely has a place; it is a means that will settle disputes like few other methodologies. But it also forcefully articulates that a regression towards a more primordial state, that is, a return to the state of nature, introduces profound instability in both families and a larger community. Simply put: Once violence is done there is no going back.
A History of Violence applies this binary perspective of violence to a conception of its main character’s masculine identity. More than anything else the film, its main character, Tom Stall/Joey Cusack, embodies the strained, volatile relationship of two contrasting forms of masculine behavior: Darwinian savagery and modern-day, first world civility. In order to understand this fully one must look at the full totality of the Stall/Cusack character, a process involving three relationships: Stall’s relationship to his community; Stall’s relationship to his family; and lastly Stall’s conception of himself.
I. “Milking Cows and Shit” – Stall in Millbrook
To understand A History of Violence as a whole, not to mention its deconstruction of the relationship between violence and the male identity, one has to examine the film’s central location of Millbrook. This geographical location is essential to the plot because of its subtextual and psychological richness.
Millbrook possesses a surreal sense of normalcy, a quality reinforced in numerous ways. Our introduction to Tom’s character revolves around his commute to work. Everyone he passes greets him with a broad smile and an amicable wave. Tom is relaxed and happy in this scene, drinking in the sunlight of a perfect morning. Reaching the diner that his family owns (simply called “Stall’s Diner”), Tom encounters what appears to be the worst part of his day: an empty pop can and a crushed, plastic bottle of water, which sit innocently outside the diner’s entrance. “Darn kids,” Tom seems to think with a small shake of his head before heading into his place of business. Unsurprisingly his cheerful employees and whimsical customers are ready to greet him upon his entry.
These scenes perfectly introduce Millbrook: a place out of time. Nothing about this environment feels congruent with reality: from the bustling main street featuring thriving mom and pop businesses, to the various extras whose behaviors feel staged. This feeling of unreality is complimented by the acting styles of many of the film’s performers. There is a stylized artifice to the performances, with the actors (especially at first) articulating the dialogue in a stilted fashion. One of the film’s subsidiary dynamics encapsulates this. The acrimonious relationship between Tom’s teenage son Jack (Ashton Holmes) and the high school bully named Bobby, played by Kyle Schmid, feels odd, hyperreal and even a bit cliched.
Both of these young actors play their respective roles without a shred of nuance. This is particularly true of Schmid, whose broad, clichéd embodiment of a small-minded, high school brute is unbelievably silly. Yet upon closer examination of his Bobby – with his all-American good looks and letter jacket – one can see the intentional nature of the performance and how critical it is to the film’s world. American iconography is critical to A History of Violence’s setting, and Bobby is one more symbol of an idealized Americana that fits neatly within the Millbrook milieu of pie, coffee, main drags and cheerleader outfits.
By examining the perfect weather and gregarious inhabitants of Millbrook, one recognizes that the town’s central function is to reflect a delusional portrait of the idealized America. With it being nestled safely among Grant Woodian corn fields and gently rolling hills, defined by its thriving main street and quaint excuse for law enforcement, viewers slowly come to realize the truth about the town: It’s a fantasy of America that doesn’t exist and has never existed.
The surrealism of Millbrook is where A History of Violence reveals its noir origins. It has long been a paradigm of that genre for the surroundings of a character to reflect their pathology. Mortensen’s Tom Stall is a man who has meticulously constructed a new identity for himself that is designed to accomplish a central purpose. He has become a caricature of a perfect citizen, one totally committed to the institutions society is predicated upon: family and community. It is an identity designed to disavow and to serve as the opposite of his history. Similarly, Millbrook – (analogous to a number of small American communities) is a place resting on a battlefield. Its stability and functionality predicated on the blood of a conquered people. Both the community and the citizen are living in a bubble, where any connection to a past cannot be considered or embraced.
The depiction of Millbrook’s also underscores the inherent fragility of society’s institutions. This idea is established when Ed Harris’s Carl Fogarty and his band of thugs show up in town, having been alerted to Tom’s location after he gains fame for stopping a robbery at his diner. The gang members dress in some of the most stereotypical-looking clothing of all time. One honestly expects them to unsling Tommy Guns when they confront Tom; the mafioso connotations of their attire are indeed that strong. Their arrival effectively serves to shatter the myth that institutions can serve as an effective vanguard against encroaching violence, and it is here that A History of Violence shifts from being noirish to projecting the air of a western. The rest of the community recedes into the background and the Stall family seems very much on their own. This feeling of a descent into isolation and fear reaches its apogee when Fogarty’s gang shows up at the Stall home and threatens to kill Tom’s son unless Tom goes back with them to Philadelphia.
The ensuing face off marks when Tom’s Joey persona first fully emerges, the moment where Tom’s self-neutering becomes untenable. And, considering that the man and the environment are one in Cronenberg’s film, it’s also the point where the idea Millbrook represents begins to fall apart. Prior to this, Stall is committed to the promise of the social contract. He shows this willingness by willfully relinquishing his agency to law enforcement, ensuring that his behavior stays congruent with the expectations of his civil society.
The figure that Tom had been attempting to rely on is an archetypal figure, the local sheriff Sam, who is on a first name basis with the Stall family. Sam is an old-timer, an aging lawman who looks more accustomed to helping little old ladies cross the streets of Millbrook than dealing with hardened criminals. When Fogarty and his men show up, Edie immediately contacts Sam to investigate, and he complies to the best of his ability. He intrepidly pulls them over before warning them to not return to Millbrook. The Millbrook community is, according to Sam, is a town of “nice people, ” a key phrase that will be discussed more later.
The criminals, despite complying with Sam’s instructions, are utterly unfazed by the sheriff’s command to stay away from the town and the Stall family. In their obstinance they deflate the secure, delusional promise of Millbrook. They disavow society’s vanguards, prompting Tom to accept that his suppression of his primal self, aka the Joey persona, is no longer possible; it must emerge again. Because while Sam is shown to not necessarily be incompetent, as he digs up dirt on Fogarty and his men fairly easily, he is simply not equipped to deal with their level of savagery.
What Cronenberg brilliantly accomplishes through his exploration of Tom in Millbrook is that modern America – draped in unprecedented luxury and relatively free from major violence – is at best a delusion. Society is a construct revolving around self-regulation, a collective effort to deny humanity’s origin where self-defense and the need to use violence was universal. By offering a vision of Americana more folksy than the hellspawn of Lynch, Rockwell and Frank Capra, Cronenberg unearths a critical observes that modern society in the heartland is ruled by artifice. It is a chimera, and to become part of it one must submit to this collective delusion, which of course shatters instantly when real violence comes to call.
The hyperbolic depiction of Millbrook encourages this interpretation. Yet for as unrealistic as the community is, Cronenberg doesn’t offer a bluntly pessimistic view of human society. A History of Violence suggests that, while Millbrook is an illusion, the criminal elements of the film’s world are no more realistic. For instance, the two robbers that attack Tom at his diner don’t appear to be the product of systemic or institutionalized criminality – far from it. There is no banality to these two misanthropes’ evil. Instead, they are evil in its absolute form: ontological evil. They are a kind of roving, virulent, unstoppable madness that can only be confronted with equal or greater force.
Cronenberg’s decision to use artifice and hyperbole in characterizing both civilization and lawlessness is unsurprising. In order to say something about the masculine identity – both in its unfettered and neutered state of being – the film has to clearly establish this dichotomy between the two worlds. For the film’s thesis (of Darwinian and contemporary masculinity co-existing in a state of internal tension) to work, it’s critical that neither the film’s town or the film’s criminal elements trump each other in terms of realism. The film has to show that neither form fully encapsulates the identity of the Mortensen character; and neither one can speak fully to the complexity of the human being. This idea of perpetual tension is extrapolated on dramatically through Cronenberg’s profiling of Stall’s relationship to his family and to himself. This eventually leads into its discussion of violence, that is, its discussion regarding violence’s place in the world – or whether it should have one art all.
II. “You’re the Best Man I’ve Ever Known” – Stall the Family Man
We’ve established that the central town of Cronenberg’s A History of Violence is defined by artifice and that this is critically important in understanding the identity that Viggo Mortensen’s Tom Stall has constructed. Intertwined with this is the film’s depiction of Mortensen’s Tom as a family man. This facet of the character more clearly outlines how modern-day masculinity cannot coexist easily with its more devolved form. When Tom is forced to call upon his history, it is often with the specific purpose of protecting his family. However, this degrades his familial bonds and partially expels him from that social sphere.
The neutering effect of society – so fundamental to the Millbrook ethos – is explored in both Tom’s relationship with his wife Edie (Maria Bello) and with his two children, Jack and Sarah. To put it bluntly: Tom is emasculated masculinity personified. The key factor here, however, is that Tom embraces his emasculated status with ebullience; he flat-out loves his quaint, little podunk life.
His acceptance of his emasculation is evident on a variety of fronts, established by Cronenberg in just a few scenes. First, Edie is the primary bread-winner. Second, Tom doesn’t drive, at least initially, as his pickup truck is not working in the film’s opening, and he is driven to work by Edie. While this may seem relatively unimportant when considering what constitutes someone’s identity, one should not dismiss its symbolic power. Tom is located in a small, predominantly rural community, one that is entirely car dependent. His lack of access to a working automobile can certainly be interpreted as a lack of agency, a negation of his active power as man. There are few things as deeply intertwined into the mythology of America (not to mention the American male) than the autonomous power of car travel. Including this small plot point is a deliberate decision by Cronenberg. Later the situation inverts itself, and it is Edie who remains at home while Tom fixes his car and sets off at night to take care of the family’s business.
Tom role within the familial structure is more complex than simply ensuring the family’s survival; he also fulfills a key nurturing function. One example of this occurs when the Stall’s youngest child Sarah wakes up from having a bad dream about “monsters,” and it is Tom who initially responds. He is followed by his son Jack, and only then does Edie appear. It is unquestionably the males of the family who are the first responders.
Finally, the dynamic between Edie and Tom is defined by role reversal. Edie is initially the sexual initiator in the relationship. The two scenes that chronicle the martial arc of Cronenberg’s film, and which are the two most communicative scenes overall about the story’s central preoccupations, are the two sexual interludes between Tom/Edie, and later on between Joey/Tom/Edie. The first sex scene – occurring approx. 20 minutes in – depicts Edie picking Tom up from work. Back at home, Edie surprises Tom by dressing up in a cheerleader outfit. The couple then have sex, but with a pertinent twist. Instead of the expected sex scene adhering to traditional heterosexual schema, Edie and Tom perform simultaneous oral sex. Jarring in its egalitarianism, Tom never adopts a dominant position. Additionally, similar to other areas of his life, Tom does this voluntarily. While Edie is the sexual initiator, Tom is the one who begins performing oral sex.
Cronenberg deliberately chooses to cut away before there is any further progression, powerfully reflecting a core part of Tom’s identity. This keeps with other facets of the character’s existence such as: Tom’s deferral to his wife; his immersion in the sunny charm of Millbrook; and his adoption of a more nurturing parental role. The sex scene between Edie and Tom is representative of how an individual’s positive integration into a social group is contingent upon making key choices.
But how legitimate is Tom Stall’s identity, which is predicated on these choices? This is somewhat unclear in Cronenberg’s film, as the connotations of the first sex scene are violently refuted later in the story. One of the film’s most iconic sequences revolves around this refutation. After Tom finally reveals to Edie that he is indeed Joey Cusack, and that he actually did lead a former life as a hitman in Philadelphia, their marriage becomes rocky. In one scene, after Edie has exculpated Tom from Sam’s suspicions, the couple has violent sex on the stairs of their home. At one point, Edie, enraged and sickened, screams, “Fuck you Joey!” to her husband, to which Mortensen’s character is non-responsive – at least verbally. What’s incredible about this scene – aside from the obvious violence – is how the dichotomy at the heart of the Tom/Joey character is visually presented. When Cronenberg cuts back to Mortensen, the lighting and Mortensen’s acting reveal a dark, harsh man, irrefutably distinctive from Tom. The Joey identity has emerged.
As mentioned, this is a complete inversion of the earlier sexual egalitarianism between Tom and Edie. Tom/Joey penetrates Edie on the stairs, and always positions himself above her. And yet, this sequence does not resign itself to simple inversion. While Mortensen’s character is initially the initiator and aggressor, he pulls away after her first drives her to the hard stairs. His mindset has changes and he moves fluidly out of his regressed state back to what appears to be the Tom persona. Amazingly, it is Edie who pulls her husband back and begins kissing him, which then leads to the actual violent sequence of intercourse.
In this sequence Cronenberg is able to highlight the relationship between hidden drives in a simultaneous and non-verbal fashion. When Tom goes after Edie on the stairs, his capacity for violence – in both a physical or sexual sense – is unmistakable. Yet it is Edie who, after initially resisting Tom’s aggressive advances, pushes for a continuation of his dominant behavior. The exact motivations for why she does this are open for debate. What does seem plausible, however, is that Edie – a woman enjoying economic, social and sexual power in her relationship – finds the fluctuation in power dynamics erotic. Maria Bello’s acting suggests this, insinuating that while she finds Joey repellent, his brutish, violent masculinity is also exciting.
Conversely, the sex scene unearths important qualities about Mortensen’s dichotomized character. The circumstances that initially precipitate Tom’s borderline assault upon Edie are defined by extreme stress (the erosion of his marriage and rejection by his wife). These push the character to a psychological state comparable to earlier scenes where his life was threatened. The aggressive behavior towards his wife however encapsulates both sides of the character: His primal drives towards dominance and the possession of his sexual object (Edie) are realized, but so too are his conscious efforts to realign his behavior with social norms.
The treatment of this couple’s sex life assists greatly with A History of Violence’s focus on two forms of masculinity. The film’s intimate, messy and psychologically complex sexual dynamics underlines a critical and forgotten truth about the human experience, showcasing how one’s identity is contextually dependent. Edie’s and Tom’s preconceived notions about who they are are made and unmade through their two scenes of coupling. These scenes show that one’s primal and modern selves live in a state of tension. Nobody is simply one thing. This is given additional support through the film’s intuitive use of language as a means for establishing morality. This relationship between language, morality and identity is fundamental in understanding the totality of A History of Violence’s take on the Tom/Joey character, and it is what will be tackled in the next section.
III. “We Take Care of Our Nice People” – Stall v. Himself
Variations on the line of dialogue in this section’s title run like a refrain throughout A History of Violence. It’s an expression that crudely lumps people into two groups: bad and good. First evoked when Sarah Stall has a nightmare and she utters her line about monsters, this is a recurring theme throughout Cronenberg’s film, where that which is evil is also that which is “the other.” However, this basic concept possess a more intriguing twist: In the film, “the other” is purer and more metaphysical than ordinary or physiological distinctions like gender, age or race. Beginning with the monsters comment, Cronenberg continues to entertain this idea throughout A History of Violence, mainly by presenting depictions of “the other” that display evil qualities nearly comical in their purity.
This includes the robbers who menace Stall’s Diner. While there is a singular line that speaks to the motivation for their actions (“We are so fucking broke”), the two unnamed killers are defined by a total lack of empathy and by an inscrutable rationale for their savagery. In fact, this superficial treatment of antagonistic characters is universal throughout the film’s story. For example, Bobby the bully also lacks true cause for his actions, striking up a hostile dynamic with Jack Stall for the most petty of reasons.
But these men are all eclipsed by what is easily the film’s loudest and funniest performance: William Hurt as Richie Cusack, Joey’s older brother. Hurt’s Richie is the boss of Ed Harris’s Fogarty and the rest of Fogarty’s crew. He is also a mafioso dandy, living in an ostentatious mansion in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Hurt’s characterization of Richie encourages an interpretation of the character as being evil incarnate. There is none of the world-weary pathos found in other cinematic depictions of gangster life. Hurt is just a viciously jovial bastard, one who experiences nothing but psychotic resignation about the prospect of killing his own brother.
The stylized nature of both A History of Violence’s world of criminality, and its world of order and civility, has already been established. The important question to ask is just what purpose does this treatment serve. The film’s robust presentation of two equally implausible worlds conveys an important fallacy in human thinking. A common human mentality is to instill the world and its inhabitants with an overly simplistic, black-or-white meaning. This is depicted as erroneous, mainly through how the convergence of the Tom/Joey personas contradicts the language of the characters. Most of the central players in A History of Violence extol that human beings can only occupy one role: modern or primal, good or evil.
The first person to make a declaration of absolute morality is Edie. After their first sex scene, she tells Tom that he is “best man that [she] has ever known.” This is then echoed by Sam the sheriff, who states to Fogarty that Millbrook is a town constituted by “nice people” and that Tom is one of them. Sam also remarks to Tom and Edie – once he has had scoped Fogarty’s criminal history – that the Ed Harris character and his crew are the real deal, the “bad men.” This is the same statement that Fogarty uses to describe the robbers Tom kills in his diner. Yet the gangster uses such terminology in a biting, sardonic way. He is more than aware that inside Tom lurks a capacity for viciousness comparable or greater than that of the robbers.
Undoubtedly, the most bizarre and disturbing example of someone using language to establish a moral standing, or to advocate for the validity of an identity, is when Mortensen’s character finally admits to his wife that Joey Cusack and Tom Stall are one in the same. The way the character articulates this is the salient point; he consistently refers to Joey in the third person.
Edie jumps on this choice of language, pointing out to Tom that he seems to consider Joey as an entity separate from himself. It’s as if he is suffering from a dissociative identity disorder. In many ways, this is an apt summation of what is going on with Tom/Joey. Despite the grandiosity of the character’s former status as a vicious criminal, what the film is saying about the hidden aspects of a human being, not to mention the fickle, ephemeral nature of one’s relationship to those hidden aspects, is universally common.
The film’s postulate is that, while conscious choices can play a large part in the establishment of identity, they cannot speak to the full complexity of one’s being. In short, conscious choices cannot fully reveal who you are. While Tom may have wanted to believe that his former life as “Joey” was not a part of him, or that he had “killed Joey” to become Tom Stall, the events of Cronenberg’s film refute this line of thinking.
However, tumultuous, reptilian drives, embodied by the Joey character, are also not a complete picture of a human being. As a majority of people covet inclusion in the social sphere of humanity, the primal nature of human beings comes under intense scrutiny. And while this doesn’t necessarily imply that blunter aspects of the human are wiped out entirely, it does suggest that membership in society remains contingent around the theme of continual self-regulation.
The film states that inside each person there lies an intense dialectic, a war between the present and the past self. For if Tom wasn’t Joey he would have been killed that night in the diner, and especially by Fogarty and his men later on in the story. Conversely, if Joey wasn’t Tom he could not have built a life where he adhered to a doctrine of social civility or raised a family that loved and respected him.
A History of Violence’s theory on the self (or selves) extends further than the character of Tom/Joey, touching upon the character of Jack and how his own proclivity for violence changes dramatically due to evolving circumstances in his life. In the beginning of the story, Jack is somewhat goofy and mild-mannered – a milquetoast, like his dad. He fits snugly into the benign fabric of Millbrook, obeying his parents and carrying on a friendship with a girl from school that appears entirely platonic.
Upon the arrival of criminality to his community, however, not to mention the emergence of his father’s own considerable violence, Jack’s behavior dramatically changes. The long-simmering feud between himself and Bobby reaches a terrible conclusion: Jack nearly beats the thug unconscious in the Millbrook high school.
Jack’s character arc evokes important observations on the male identity. It also provokes further discussion regarding just how Cronenberg views the morality of violence. In one of the earlier confrontations with Bobby – which transpires in the high school’s locker room – Jack defuses, with great acumen, Bobby’s potentiality for violence. Yet to accomplish this he is forced to emasculate himself. Bobby’s aggressive posturing and disparaging remarks towards Jack (there is the repeated and ever so charming use of the word “faggot” and “pussy”) are not met with a similar level masculine aggression. Instead, Jack simply accepts Bobby’s dominance, repeating Bobby’s insults with self-disparaging wit.
This technique is initially successful, concluding with Bobby growling in frustration and Jack winning the day. However, Cronenberg then refutes this technique’s efficacy. Later on, after Tom’s actions raise the family’s profile, Bobby reappears. He taunts Jack and pushes him to once again confront the threat of violence with reciprocal force. This time Jack capitulates, but it is important to comment on Jack’s demeanor prior to his retaliation. Bobby’s second assault is defined by no greater level of intimidation or greater threat of force. And yet Jack’s emotional response to Bobby’s abuse is wildly different the second time around; the beating he doles out is one that Bobby will not soon forget.
This suggests that a phenomena like violence – and in a larger sense one’s identity and relationship to such an action – is not definite or fixed. Its shape and nature is contingent on the contextual aspects of one’s life; it is ultimately fluid. Jack appears somewhat frightened in the locker room confrontation with Bobby. But his fear has more to do with his potential to be violent person (not to mention the social consequences of engaging in violence) than it does with having to physically withstand an assault by Bobby.
This further clouds how meaningful one’s choices are in regards to identity. Jack’s rip-roaring emergence as a violent person evokes the possibility that his initial nebbish persona wasn’t so much an independent choice as it was a social mandate. The possibility of social chastisement, in addition to financial and legal retaliation, appears to dramatically influence Jack’s responses to aggression.
Cronenberg floats this possibility in the scene immediately following the beating of Bobby. After hearing about the incident, Tom seeks to chastise Jack and reinforce the rules one must submit to when being part of a community. This is a powerful scene, as embracing violence has titillated Jack. He reacts to his father in a haughty, rebellious fashion. He has become the living embodiment of the idea that we are who we need to be. In this specific case, Jack no longer feels the full prohibitive weight of his environment, one which instills an entirely non-violent series of expectations. Tom’s authority over Jack – his moral authority that is – has been degraded to an almost non-existent level at this point. He can no longer dictate what is right and wrong because he has not emulated it. Jack’s irascible candor, not to mention his obstinate rebuff of his father when Tom/Joey says, “In this family we do not solve our problems by hitting people!” proves this.
Such a scene highlights the fluctuating nature of Jack’s identity, but it also begins the film’s exploration on the effects of violence. Two things are revealed in the scene about the film’s challenging stance: Violence can serve a purpose, meaning it can settle disputes, but it also degrades society and the family. Jack may have removed a threatening force from his life, but he has also disrupted his comfortable place in society and in his familial circle.
This causality is present for the Tom/Joey character, who can protect his family through violence but is also ostracized through embracing his primal state and loses his moral authority over his world. And why does violence provoke this degradation of familial bonds? Simply because the Tom his family thought they knew, the “best man” who is one of the “good people,” doesn’t really exist. The world that the family knows is predicated on that delusion of a world-wide dialectic, which espouses that what is good and bad are clearly marked and never interchangeable. With Tom revealing his inner drives, and by showing that the primal exists alongside the contemporary, that worldview (fortified through their first-world surroundings and circumstances) ultimately dissipates. For the family this is horrific; it shows that “monsters” do not simply exist in the feverish dreams of their youngest child, but that can be manifested in the real world and close to home.
IV. “Jesus Richie” – On The Fundamental Importance of Emotion
It’s always important to remember that when watching a Cronenberg film one should not be looking for moral direction. It’s not that his films are amoral, far from it. Whether it be in films such as The Fly, Dead Ringers, Crash, Spider or Eastern Promises, it’s clear that Cronenberg is an artist who cares about the human condition. Ultimately, though, his films possess a muddy moral character; and in the end it remains the viewer’s responsibility to determine each movie’s message.
In A History of Violence’s exploration of identity, and specifically the masculine identity, mankind’s Darwinian ethos is shown to be, at best, kept barely submerged behind a mask. It exists behind a web of capitulation to social expectations. Through the Tom/Joey character’s relationship to his community, his family and to himself, one comes to understand the overall fragility of that mask. One gleans how context allows or prompts one to move fluidly along a spectrum of different identities, or engage in actions at a certain point that would be unthinkable in another.
A History of Violence doesn’t demonize that fact nor does it seek to characterize Tom/Joey as good or bad; he is quite simply both. The film posits that while Tom would like to disavow his personal history, it stubbornly remains a part of him. Additionally, if Cronenberg’s film is attempting to critique anything, it is the idea that “society” can completely eradicate man’s original state, which is that of an animal. A History of Violence explores this by depicting repeatedly how the institutions of Millbrook are impotent in the face of external aggression, and that ultimately Tom/Joey is forced to call on his hidden nature. This suggests that violence may indeed serve a selective purpose and that its total prohibition is unwise and unrealistic.
Through the scene with the diner robbers, the scenes with Fogarty’s men, the sequences between Jack and Bobby and the final climactic showdown between Joey and Richie, violence is shown to be a clear necessity. It puts down that which is unrelenting. Still, Cronenberg never shies away from its ramifications, which are substantial. Each altercation carries a cost, and one could even make the argument that committing violence (especially in the case of Tom) leads to the continual amplification of his violent obligations.
Additionally, while the film shows that society’s protective, insulating bubble is not infallible (and is in actuality fairly fragile), it clearly establishes that violence cannot be a productive force that contributes to the social contract. Essentially, violence does not equal power. This is shown in a variety of contexts. First, Tom’s use of violence draws him further criminal attention. Second, Tom’s use of violence destroys his moral standing with his son, which perhaps contributed to Jack’s initially non-violent attitude. Finally, the revelations of Tom’s history of violence, and his subsequent regression to his primal-self, ostracizes him from his family. In the last scene (posted above), this is suggested to perhaps even be permanent – at least in regards to how Edie feels about him.
Cronenberg’s A History of Violence is one of his deepest and best films. It’s thematic power is immense and its scope much wider than any of its genre trappings suggest. The film is of course a story about the Stall family, but it is also a story about America. It’s about a country founded on genocide and then freed from colonialism through blood. It’s about a country which claims absolute moral authority primarily through a selective grasp on its own history. But even more significantly, the film is about the human journey: from primordial origins to our contemporary realities, and how our responsibility as part of a human community is to be mindful of both.
Thus, one can look at the character of Tom/Joey with sympathy. Despite his questionable decision to hide his past from himself and others, Tom/Joey is a man who has at least attempted to integrate himself into the world. He has attempted to move away from an earlier form of violent masculinity that is also intrinsic to him.
But conscious choices are not everything. As depicted through the arc of the Jack character, it’s clear that some of an individual’s choices are not made in a voluntary fashion; they are also the product of social expectations. Instead, it is the emotions behind one’s choices that matter most. These relationships are evoked clearly by Cronenberg: whether that be Tom’s agony at the pain his lies have caused his family; his obvious horror at the dynamic with his brother; or by his clear exhaustion when, after killing Richie, he attempts to wipe his body clean. Tom/Joey is a man aspiring, desperately, to make his choices count and last in a meaningful way.
That is why the final scene of A History of Violence stands as one of the greatest in Cronenberg’s canon. The scene encompasses nearly all of the thematic complexity of the film: the tension between Darwinian and contemporary masculinity; the struggle between the past and the present self; and finally the true, devastating outcome of the Mortensen character’s history of violence. It also says something important about who the character is. It doesn’t answer this query in a definitive or superficial way. It doesn’t promulgate that one identity or one idea of masculinity has gone away. It simply places the importance on choice and the emotions behind those choices. Because, in the film Tom and Joey are linked, with both identities jostling for supremacy. However, by coming home in the end, and by tentatively standing in the doorway of the kitchen, desperate to reenter the family sphere, the character reveals an essential truth: He may be both Tom and Joey, but he wants to be Tom more.