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."

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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."

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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