A History of Violence (Cronenberg, 2005, Canada) AKA A Diner Existenz
A History of Violence is, on the surface, a pretty straight-ahead thriller, with a couple of wild and raunchy sex scenes mixed in with copious incidents of gruesome violence. However, hidden beneath it all is a rather unflinching study of America's apparently primal need to cheer violence.
Tom Stall is an ordinary fellow who owns and operates a diner in a small Midwestern town, and has a beautiful house in the country, where he lives with his lovely and successful lawyer wife Edie as well as two attractive and apparently well-adjusted kids, Jack and Sarah. But his ordinary life is turned upside down when Tom thwarts a couple of thugs who threaten to perpetrate some unholy violence upon those in Tom’s diner. Tom’s actions make him a hero, something in the manner of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, and the subsequent media circus brings Tom to the attention of some unsavory characters who force both Tom and his family to do some rather deep soul searching. At the same time, Cronenberg encourages the audience to think about its own responses to the violence and mayhem that are unleashed.
In the film Cronenberg gives us an apparently decent, kind and loving character to root for, and then he takes him away from us one scene at a time. Yet somehow the audience continues to pull for Tom. Cronenberg is trying to get at something about the nature of how and why we wind up cheering violence when our every instinct tells us to be repulsed by it. He wants us to wonder why we get such a rush out of all these killings, and why we aren’t feeling more horrified by Tom, whether by his mysteriously violent past or his most bloody present. Would we love, forgive and accept him back if he showed up at our dinner table?
[SPOILERS] The film’s finale is fraught with tension, and the sprinkling of zaniness, and William Hurt, who had better polish up those awards speeches, in particular, did exactly what comic relief should do, which is allow the audience to catch its breath before all hell broke loose. As for complaints about the tidiness of the film’s closing scene, I do not see this as a sunny familial rapprochement, but rather a more ambiguous Taxi Driver-like conclusion.. I no more believe that this family is healed than I believe that Travis and Betsy will end up making house at the end of Scorsese’s film. And I certainly don’t need to see what’s going to happen next with this family, because Cronenberg has already shown us the violence and resentment of the second sex scene between Tom and Edie and in the bitter recriminations that pass for exchanges between Tom and Jack. The only person who accepts the father back in the house unconditionally is the daughter, and she is the only one who has been (in one scene quite literally) shielded from the truth of her father throughout. This is not Leave it to Beaver land. This is going to be one seriously damaged family.
A History of Violence is a 21st century Taxi Driver, with a hero who at least appears to be a little kindler and gentler than Travis Bickle, which is exactly how Cronenberg sucks us in, and ends up implicating us in all the violence; who doesn't wanna root for Aragorn? Online critic Bryant Frazer said A History of Violence is Sin City with a conscience. But this is also Sin City with a functioning brain. A History of Violence is really a fine film; indeed, it is one of the year’s best.