In his latest thriller, David Cronenberg finds fertile ground in a hero with a shifty identity and a story that zeroes in on society's current embrace of mayhem.
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In David Cronenberg's new thriller A History of Violence, Viggo Mortensen plays Tom Stall, the soft-spoken owner of a small-town Indiana diner who reacts unexpectedly when a pair of sadistic hoodlums come through his door one night, intent on robbery and murder. This gentle man finds a reservoir of brutality hiding beneath his placid surface and puts down the threat, becoming a media hero in the process. His fifteen minutes of fame are not without consequence however, as gangster Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) walks into his life, insisting on a past association that Tom maintains is fiction.
Fogarty is either mistaken, setting up a wrong man scenario that grips Tom and his family and won't let go; or else he is who Fogarty thinks he is, and has spent two decades or more living under a false identity. If the latter, it raises the further question of whether Tom is still the person he once was, or that he has been perhaps living in this second skin for so long that he really has become the upstanding citizen he appears to be.
Cronenberg, when not obsessed with decay and mutation and the capacity of the human body to turn on itself, has long been fascinated by multiple identities, an interest reflected in such works as Dead Ringers, M. Butterfly, and Spider. Whether Tom is who he says he is or not, others believe he is someone else, opening a trap door under his sense of self, fertile ground for the director.
"A man who could change by force of will for 20 years successfully," Cronenberg begins during a recent interview with FilmStew. "That would just sort of demonstrate my feeling that people are capable of that, that you're not really given an identity by your genes and chromosomes, but, in fact, there's a lot of creative will involved in becoming someone and maintaining an identity over a long period of time."
"There are choices that are consciously made or unconsciously made, but they are choices that could be different," he continues. "You decided what to absorb and take into yourself and the things that you reject. So somebody that could do that could be a demonstration that that is a viable theory."
It is not just the idea of shifting identities that intrigued the 62-year-old Canadian when he first encountered Josh Olson's adaptation of John Wagner and Vince Locke's graphic novel. The story is also a mix of Western and film noir motifs, perhaps as much Western than noir, as Cronenberg agrees that Stall is more Gary Cooper - the good man forced to stand off alone against the bad guys a la High Noon - than, say, Robert Mitchum, whose situation in the noir classic Out of the Past as a man whose bucolic life is interrupted by gangsters somewhat parallels Tom's.
The way the Toronto native sees it, A History of Violence provided him with a way not just to explore identity, but also the American way of violence. "I was interested in coming to grips with a kind of iconic Americana, America's mythology of itself as seen through Western movies, cowboy movies, gangster movies, and so on," he explains. "To the extent that those mythologies start to replace other realities and start to seem more real than reality itself."
"Also, the ambivalent relationship we have to violence, because, on one level, we love it," he adds. "We love it; it's exhilarating, it's liberating, it gives us a sense of justice in the world when it happens in a certain way. On the other hand, we're terrified of it. We don't want it to visit our children and our homes and so on. Very ambivalent, so it is really a discussion of all those things."
Mortensen's casting was crucial. As Cronenberg worked with Olson on script revisions, it became evident that Tom Stall, regardless of whether he is the innocent family man he proclaims himself to be or someone more sinister, is that rarity in American movies, an actual adult. Casting an actor capable of playing a grown-up rather than a graying boy was imperative and the director found that quality in The Lord of the Rings cycle's Aragorn.
"There's an idealized, iconic American figure; the man who works the land or is an honorable man in a small town, simple, strong," Cronenberg suggests. "Again, the Gary Cooper kind of thing; [a man] who has friends and is a strong member of a community." This is in marked contrast to how Cronenberg says he views most Americans.
"[Tom] had to be a man as is not very often depicted, because there is a kind of perpetual adolescence that is endemic to American culture," Cronenberg notes. "I think Americans are obsessed with high school. They never seem to get out of it or over it. The result is that men don't ever really want to become men. They want to still be kind of high school students."
Once Mortensen was in the picture, the search began for the right actress to play Tom's wife, Edie. "It's strange. It feels like I'm being some weird marriage counselor or geneticist, you know," laughs Cronenberg. "We cast Viggo and then I have to find him a mate. I have to find a wife for him and she has to match him in intensity and sexiness, in believability and in complexity. If you make a mistake either way with those, then you've made a seriously bad mistake."
The director settled on Maria Bello, impressed by her acclaimed, earthy performance in the Las Vegas-set drama, The Cooler, as well as her personal qualities. "She has this combination of intelligence, sexiness, sensuality, and practicality. It's an odd, difficult-to-find combination, and I would include maturity there, in that she's an adult. She's not a girl," he raves.
"She's a woman. She's very womanly and can be very down to earth," Cronenberg continues. "Naturally, they are a very attractive couple, but they are not unbelievable for a small town. They can be believable. It was all of those things."
There are sex scenes in the movie that were not in Olson's original script, scenes notable for their frankness. They were added, at Cronenberg's insistence, as a way of quickly sketching a portrait of the characters and their marriage. "I wanted [those scenes], because I felt that that was the only way to get to know this couple deeply, profoundly was in their most vulnerable and open moments," he maintains.
The other component of A History of Violence is the connection it makes between violence and celebrity. The American culture has long embraced the criminal as folk hero, going all the way back to the days of the Wild West and such lionized black hats as the James Gang and Billy the Kid, whom Cronenberg notes was "a killer, a rotten little killer." It is an act of self-defense that makes Tom Stall at least temporarily famous, but the way he dispatches the men who invade his café is stunning in its savagery. This is not Hollywood violence, but something more visceral that arrives on screen with the force of a punch to the gut.
News teams surround the Stall house. His teenage son tells Tom he is a hero, someone who could find himself on Larry King Live. And the son eventually stages his own replay of his father's actions, when he viciously attacks a bully after avoiding physical confrontation in previous encounters. "Does he think that maybe he has a chance to attain some kind of celebrity on his own by being violent the way his father was and in the same circumstances?" Cronenberg muses.
The way Cronenberg sees it, the instant stardom that Tom attains through his actions, however justified, reflects a society that often finds itself repelled by and attracted to violence at the same time. "I think there's a really black dark strange feeling of liberation in the idea of actually killing someone, you know," the director asserts. "Crossing that line, that ultimate taboo of taking a life, that culture tells you that you must not do, but at the same time, there are other elements in the culture that say that that could actually be a pretty neat thing to do and maybe even heroic."
"Taking a life is the hugest exercise of power possible," Cronenberg suggests, getting back to the idea of the mixed feelings with which people greet the idea of bloodshed, whether fictionalized in movies and TV or the real thing. "When you see it in someone else, that's why it's liberating, because it's maybe not something you feel you could do yourself, but there's a part of you that would like to do it. And that's the ambivalence that I'm talking about that we have."