The Way of the Gun

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

Indeed, like so many of Cronenberg's great films, Violence is an exquisitely poised tightrope negotiation between reality and reverie, viscera and intellect, the comedy and the horror of existence. The actors say the experience sometimes caught them off guard. "You often didn't know whether to laugh or be disgusted," Mortensen says. "It was the most joyful and painful creative experience I've ever had," co-star Maria Bello adds. "It brought up real emotion, real fear, a fear of not knowing what exists in me."


Sui generis and fiercely coherent, Cronenberg's body of work is unrivaled in modern movies as an argument for the auteur theory; Violence, despite the absence of gross-out spectacle, is as much a mindfuck and a study in transfiguration as Crash or Dead Ringers or Videodrome. "What keeps the film from being by-the-numbers has a lot to do with David," says Mortensen. "A lot of directors would have made an exploitation movie." (Imagine Joel Schumacher tackling an identical scenario.)

"In a weird way," Cronenberg notes, "[Violence] would play great on a double bill with Spider," his 2002 interior portrait of schizophrenia. Tom Stall is not quite schizoid, but he has serious identity issues—if you believe the Philly gangsters who show up insisting that this upstanding citizen turned local hero is, in fact, a hair-trigger psycho they once knew as Crazy Joey.

It's significant that Tom's violent side, to borrow an early Cronenberg title, comes from within. Typically for the filmmaker, the return of the repressed lends itself equally to anxiety and bone-dry humor. Mortensen's amazingly shaded (and very un-Aragorn-like) performance illuminates Tom's capacity for self-delusion and his creeping existential panic as his alter ego resurfaces. "It's not as though he takes even more than a hint of athletic pleasure out of what he does," Cronenberg says of Tom's killer instincts. "He's good at it; he does it. He's rather sheepish about it." This functional attitude, he adds, informed the decision to stage the violence in real-time spasms, without slow motion or multiple cuts.

Scarcely faithful to its source, A History of Violence shifts the focus from mobster machinations to domestic disquiet (Bello, matching Mortensen for precision and nuance, plays Tom's wife, Edie). Cronenberg, who didn't realize the script was based on a graphic novel until well into pre-production, asked screenwriter Olson to work in a matched pair of sex scenes that get at the heart of the film's themes of role play and identity construction. In the first, the Stalls tenderly spice up their marital routine, Edie surprising Tom with a cheerleader outfit. In the second, which happens post–Crazy Joey, the couple goes at it on the stairs—a primal, angry fuck that speaks to the eroticism of violence and the violence of sex. As Cronenberg explains, it's essentially a three-way: "Edie's dealing with someone she doesn't know—a Tom/Joey hybrid creature, and she finds that repulsive and exciting at the same time. Joey's violence does have an erotic component. She responds to it, but she's also repelled by it. It's the best sex she's ever had, and also the most terrifying. Does she want more of it or not?"

"There's no nudity in those sex scenes, but they were the most emotionally draining ones I've ever done," Bello says. "The day after [filming the stairway scene], Viggo and I limped onto the set. My back and hip and legs were black-and-blue. Viggo had a bite on the inside of his mouth and a swollen elbow. We were a mess." In fact, the bruises on Bello's back are glimpsed at one point. "It was a week later," she says, "but the makeup artist made more bruises so they looked like the ones I had right after the scene."

On paper, A History of Violence seems to adopt the strategy of the revisionist western, riddling a famously conservative sce nario—lonesome cowboy emerges from retirement to protect his loved ones—with massive uncertainty. But in Cronenberg's hands, the queasiness is visceral to the point of Sartrean nausea. For a crucial hospital room confrontation, Bello says she suggested that a bathroom be built, "because all I want to do is puke."

Cronenberg says he was striving for "emotional honesty. Or let me be more pretentious and say existential honesty. Morality is a human invention—it doesn't come from outer space, it doesn't come from God. It's constantly being redefined, and it's constantly up for grabs. It makes a lot of people very nervous to accept that and they want absolutes, but of course then you just get absolute opposites killing each other. There's a lack of certainty on the part of those making this film, a willingness to discuss complexities. The final scene encapsulates all of that."

Violence closes on an iconic frieze—the nuclear family at the dinner table—whose ideological meaning has been thoroughly destabilized by everything that precedes it. Cronenberg says the scene was a litmus test in dealing with the studio ("When I realized it wasn't an issue, I knew we were making the same movie"). It's a wordlessly eloquent crescendo of doubt, dizzying in its ambiguity. "In a sense we're saying that nice little family in that nice little house in that nice little town is supported by blood spilling. Is that inevitable? Is it inevitable and therefore accepted? Should it be accepted in a more conscious way? Or is it avoidable? And so on. It's all those things that neocons don't like. It's relativist, it's existentialist. But I believe the implications have moral weight. It's just that it's muddy and unclear—in short, it's very human."

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