The Way of the Gun

Blood not-so-simple: David Cronenberg takes aim at on-screen and real-life violence

"The violence that matters most to people is the violence done to the human body," says David Cronenberg, whose newest film, A History of Violence, approaches its titular subject with the intensity and physicality you'd expect from the originator of body horror. "Blowing up cars and buildings would not matter without consequences for the human body—if it only had consequences for your car insurance, let's say."

In A History of Violence, which received its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month and opens Friday, a Midwestern family man (Viggo Mortensen) commits a deadly act of self-defense that triggers a series of ever more brutal persecutions and reprisals. It's the 62-year-old Cronenberg's most conventional film in years as well as his most brilliantly subversive: The movie bears the DNA of a classical western and a contemporary action thriller, but it interrogates its death wish fantasies even as it submits to them. "It's a really well designed film," as Mortensen puts it. "There's no fat on it, but it leaves a lot of room for thought."

As lucid and systematic as its title would suggest, the film—adapted by screenwriter Josh Olson from a 1997 graphic novel— allows violence to register in any number of ways: exciting, horrific, absurd, instinctual, deplorable, logical. Cronenberg, master of multiplicity that he is, allows these impressions to exist in unnerving unison. The first time we see Mortensen's Tom Stall spring into action, swiftly dispatching a pair of murderous thugs in his diner, "the scene was set up so that the violence was inevitable," the director says. "It was demanded, it was positive, it was justified, and yet I needed to make it appalling at the same time. The audience starts cheering when he's killing people, and they stop when you cut to the result of the violence. That's the structure for all the violent scenes. You're complicit in the exhilaration, and you have to be complicit in the aftermath as well."

In other words, A History of Violence provides a rigorous context for violence. It digs into the reptile brain motivations and sticks around for the physical and psychological fallout. The film is hardly a straightforward critique, though, acknowledging as it does the animal adrenaline rush of retaliation. Distinct from the wrist-slap abjection of Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs or some of Michael Haneke's films, it's the rare audience-implicating film that's not founded on a contempt for the audience. "I'm never certain enough of myself to take the moral high ground," Cronenberg explains. "I'm not even doing what Hitchcock did—a puppeteer manipulating the strings of his marionette audience. I'm really just saying this is the physical reality. I wanted the audience to feel the consequences of violence, and it's real nasty, it's grotesque. It's a pretty dispassionate approach: If you think this is good, and I'm agreeing with you that it is under these circumstances, here's what happens, though, and let's just look at it."

It sounds modest, but "just looking" carries moral import in a time when the bodily costs of a faraway war often go conveniently unseen. Cronenberg says the Iraq connection was never far from his mind: "Seeing all that footage without seeing any bodies—one day you do see the bodies and it's shocking, what happens to the burned corpses. You have to see those things. Otherwise it's all theoretical."

A History of Violence
Takashi Seida/New Line Productions

An inquiry into territorial aggression that questions what it means to live with blood on our hands, Violence has an unmistakable political subtext. "It's the idea of a man with a gun standing up to protect his family against bad guys," Cronenberg says. "If you're attacked that way, is any response justified, no matter how violent or how all encompassing?" On set during the 2004 presidential campaign, the cast and crew, at Mortensen's urging, staged a mock election (which will appear on the DVD). "Viggo decorated his trailer like a voting station—we had a U.N. observer and a bomb-sniffing dog," Cronenberg says. "I should add that Kerry won our election."

Given the film's purposeful ambiguities, the Toronto-born and -based Cronenberg concedes that Violence "could be seen as a red-state movie in a red state and a blue-state movie in a blue state." At the Cannes premiere, "People wanted to take it as a critique of America, and perhaps perversely, I'd say, well, let's not just jump on the U.S., because there's no country in the world that doesn't have a history of violence. Every country was founded on the suppression of other peoples whether by invasion or war or annexing. Even Canada. The focus is on the U.S., of course, because it's the superpower. It's a legitimate discussion, but it's not the only discussion." Still, A History of Violence, set to Howard Shore's Aaron Copland–ish score, doesn't stint on Rockwellian iconography: a quaint main street, endless cornfields, the model nuclear family. (Much of the Americana is quite Canadian: Standing in for "Millbrook, Indiana" is the real town of Millbrook, Ontario.) "It's perversely idealized," Cronenberg says. "It's almost Twilight Zone–y. There's an appeal to that longing for an imaginary past—a yearning for an innocence that was never so pure anyway. It's meant to be recognizably real, but it has to play as mythological as well. That's part of the balancing act."

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