We question a country’s self-mythology. Perfect town and perfect family are – like Westerners – part of America’s mythology, involving notions of past innocence and naïveté. But is it possible for innocence to exist while something heinous transpires elsewhere?
In David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence something heinous transpires underneath the presentation of mythological innocence. The film starts with two gangsters who are on a venture across America; we see two bodies in a pool of blood in a convenience store and a child is being murderered. The scene is abruptly cut to the one showing a girl screaming in her bed, because of the monsters in the closet. Her father, Tom Stall, says to her that there are no such things as monsters. And yet, we have just witnessed the scene with monsters which are not imagined but live among ordinary citizens.
The other important motif is the monsters in the closet. They are concelead, hiding, waiting to come out, perhaps not wanting to. Tom Stall is a family man, living in a nice town, with nice people, as the sheriff says later in the film. He runs a small business, a diner, has a beautiful wife and two children. William S. Borroughs once wrote: “America is not a young land: it is old and dirty and evil. Before the settlers, before the Indians… the evil was there… waiting.” There is a myth of an idyllic family life in America, but there is also evil, waiting to come to the surface.
The other important motif appears when Tom’s colleague at the diner says that he had a girlfriend who thought he was a “murderer” and stabbed him with a fork. Later, he married her. This detail foreshadows the doubt in one’s partner, in this case irrational, and the possibility that beneath the appereance there is something sinister, murderous. Two men come into the diner, trying to rob it and Tom kills both of them with the efficiency of a skilled murderer. The news present him as an American hero, since, as we know it, the Americans love heroes. Tom’s son Jack is bullied at school, and before the killlings, he says that the threat of violence directed toward him is “cruel and pointless.”
When the bully says that his father is “a tough guy” and starts harassing him, Jack beats the bully. Violence which his father commits, although in self-defense, provokes an ethical shift in his son and he reacts with violence. When his father says that in their family they do not beat people up, Jack responds: “No we shoot them!”. The film is called A History of Violence, and the title suggests that the film presents one history of violence among many, but it also presents that violence in itself has its own history, which starts with mankind itself and it evolves from one generation to the other, it is a neverending circle which begins with the sins of the father.
Soon, two men come into the diner, one with a severely damaged eye, calling Tom “Joey Cusack” and that he comes from Philadelphia. Tom denies it, and when he sees the black car in which the man was driving, he becomes paranoid and runs toward his house, for fear that his family will be assaulted. No one came to the house and Tom says that he fears that he is losing his mind. With the attitude of a trained killer, he says to his son that if someone comes, they will deal with it. The man with the damaged eye encounters Tom’s wife Edie in the shopping mall and says to her that her husband is Joey Cusack and that he damaged his eye with a barbed wire.
This happens precisely in the middle of the film, and in this moment, Edie starts to seriously doubt her husband’s identity. This anticipates the revelation that her husband is indeed Joey, wich happens when her husband, with the skills of a killer literally breaks the face of a man who tried to take him with them. As Tom/Joey’s personality is split into two, so is the film. When Carl Fogarty, the man with the damaged eye, tells Joey to drop down the gun, he complies and symbolically assumes his abandoned role as Joey Cusack. Fogarty is murdered at the hands of his son. The sins and the violence of the father are now a part of his son as well.
I saw Joey. I saw you turn into Joey right before my eyes. I saw a killer… the one Fogarty warned me about. You did kill men back in Philly, didn’t you? Did you do it for money, or did you do it because you enjoyed it?
Joey did, both. I didn’t… Tom Stall didn’t.
David Cronenberg once said: “When we talk about violence, we’re talking about the destruction of the human body, and I don’t lose sight of that. In general, my filmmaking is fairly body-oriented, because what you are photographing is people, bodies.” In this scene, when Tom/Joey says that Joey did the killings and Tom Stall didn’t, he is filmed in a close-up and the only part of the body we can see is dressed in a patient’s gown. In other words, the character which the camera films is disembodied. In his book The Divided Self R.D. Laing writes that “in the schizoid condition… there is a persistent scission between the self and the body. What the individual regards as his true self is experienced as more or less disembodied, and bodily experience and actions are in turn felt to be the part of the false-self system.”
If Cronenberg’s films are primarily body-oriented and in the central part of the film Viggo Mortensen’s character’s body is not shown or is clothed in a gown, we can say that in this manner Cronenberg portrays a schizoid personality, which is characterized by a split between the identities. Edie asks if Joey is dead and Tom/Joey replies: “I thought he was. I thought I killed Joey Cusack. I went out to the desert, and I killed him… I spent 3 years trying to become Tom Stall.” Edie asks him if he is a “multiple personality schizoid” and is it “like flipping a switch back and forth for him.” It seems that there is certainly a schizm in Tom/Joey’s personality, but that there is also an approaching awareness regarding his identity.
This schizm is not permanent, and the reappropriation of the former identity takes place soon enough. When they come home, sheriff asks them if Tom is in fact Joey and Edie starts crying, denying it. The officer leaves their home and she says to him “Fuck you Joey”. Now, he assumes his former identity and his body is filmed as they have sex, which starts with violence on both sides. Cronenberg films Joey’s body during a sex act, we can now be certain that Tom Stall is no more and he is again Joey. He seems to be fully aware of his body, and camera is not afraid to show it.
His brother Richie calls him, who ranks high in the mob hierarchy back in Philadelphia, and a clash between two brothers commences when Joey comes to Richie’s mansion. This is an “Adam and Cain” encounter and both brothers are Adams, and Cains as well. Richie tries to kill Joey and in the end, Joey manages to murder him. He washes his hands in the water, as if purifying himself, and comes home to his family, now as another man. In a memorable scene, his daughter takes the plates and puts them on the table for him, and his son hands him the food. American dream is shattered for them, in a most violent manner, and they reluctantly decide to live on.
R.D. Laing, The Divided Self: An Existential Study In Sanity and Madness, Penguin Books, New York, 1990