David Cronenberg's A History of Violence may be a man's world, but women can relate to it as well.
I can't resist kicking off a column about Guy Movies by picking a film with that title. For what are Hollywood 'guy movies' if not a history of violence? Westerns, war films, action movies, gangster flicks, cop dramas...you get my drift. Sure, women turn up wielding guns, knives, and, occasionally, swords, but those moments are always heralded as something special, titillating and noteworthy precisely because they are still unusual in the grand scheme of mainstream American movies. Violence is more often the province of men, whether it's the hero pulling a gun in the name of righteousness, or the bad guy perpetrating grievous bodily harm on helpless victims. And, to make the kind of sweeping generalization that Hollywood decision makers do, men are often the expected audience for screen bloodshed (the audience 'quadrant' most interested in A History of Violence according to Variety? Men over 25). I'd argue that one's stomach for filmic carnage is more a matter of taste than gender (duh); after all, it was Pauline Kael who stepped forward to say Bonnie and Clyde was brilliant, while such male critics as Bosley Crowther and Joseph Morgenstern were calling it grotesque and squalid. But I can't dispute the fact that the fictional world of Western heroes, dedicated cops and screen gangsters was and is a man's world. A History of Violence is no different. A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do. And sometimes a man's got to know his limitations. But as far as the ladies in the audience...what's in it for us besides Viggo Mortensen?
David Cronenberg's screen men certainly haven't lived peaceful, harm-free lives. His renowned penchant for 'body horror' is a gore-ific fantasia ranging from guys having literally explosive headaches in Scanners and James Woods developing a gaping, bloody VCR in his abdomen in Videodrome to the icky insect mutations in The Fly and Naked Lunch. The violence perpetrated by Cronenberg's men isn't exactly pretty either (note to any woman with any fears of visiting the gynecologist: avoid Dead Ringers). Unlike most mainstream horror movies, action movies, thrillers et al., Cronenberg's violence can't be dismissed as meaningless mayhem, and, along with dialing back the grossness a little, he's put the cost of male violence thematically front and center in his most recent films. Whereas Ralph Fiennes' struggle in Spider to confront his violent past was mostly internal, however, A History of Violence makes that conflict external when upstanding citizen Tom Stall's past literally intrudes upon his nuclear family present in the form of elaborately scarred gangster Carl Fogarty-and Tom's wife Edie is not too pleased.
Edie's place in A History of Violence is instructive, in that her responses to the situation echo the reasons for why women might find the violent movie man universe intriguing and entertaining. Regardless of the gender segregation on screen, the pleasures and fears at play are not exclusive to guys. Indeed, her emotions expose the paradox of dividing violence into 'good' and 'bad,' as if audiences are only ever pleased by the spectacle of the hero mowing down the enemy in an ethically correct manner, and never, ever amused by, oh say, Michael Madsen sawing off that ear in Reservoir Dogs. Clint Eastwood, for one, got this, and A History of Violence tips its hand when one of Carl's minions jokes that they should leave Tom's diner before Tom goes 'all Dirty Harry on us.' Tom going Dirty Harry may be bad for his enemies, but there's an unmistakable charge for the rest of us.
After a leisurely set-up that is an almost unbelievable combination of lo-o-o-ong camera takes, Mayberry sunshine, wry high school angst, In Cold Blood brutality, racy yet sweet connubial sex, and lurking menace, Tom's first burst of violence carries that kind of entertaining shock. It's a well-choreographed, sharply edited pas-de-trois of guns, knives and glass coffee pots as Tom defends the Very Nice People who work for him from two Very, Very Bad Men. As far as Edie and their family, and the town, are concerned, Tom is indeed the hero the idiot press says he is. It's a moment of excitement in their very settled lives, and that's okay. Edie can handle the revelation that when backed against the wall, her hunky husband, the 'best man' she's ever known, can step up to defend the helpless. She even kinda likes it; their teenage son Jack definitely likes it. But before all of this relief and jubilation sets in, before Tom exits the diner to the applause of the stunned onlookers, Cronenberg takes a few moments to visually linger over what Tom has done, including one dead bad guy who's been relieved of half his face. It's a pattern Cronenberg repeats throughout the rest of the film: amazingly proficient homicides followed by close-up views of the carnage. It's also after that grisly shot of the mangled face that the first two people walked out of the theater (although you have to wonder what they thought they were going to see when they bought their tickets for A History of Violence directed by David Cronenberg. Fluffy musical numbers? Pratfalls? Will Ferrell? Come on). This show of machismo has a price.
Cronenberg keeps up this uneasy dance between the humorous and the frightening as Tom, Edie and their family learn the full extent of that cost. Business at the diner booms, but Tom can't credibly scold Jack for solving a bully problem with his fists. Jack's banal daily breakfast ritual is interrupted by the surreal spectacle of Edie barreling down the stairs with the shotgun at the ready as Tom runs home from the diner to confront a threat that doesn't materialize. The moment of excitement that was supposed to recede hasn't, and Edie is no longer quite so pleased with Tom's burst of heroics. Once Carl Fogarty and his two heavies roll into town in a black, tricked-out Chrysler 300C and Ed Harris starts chewing up all the scenery that the almost maddeningly laconic Mortensen refuses to, Tom and Edie's dilemma becomes what one of my movie-going companions called 'a Lifetime TV movie on acid.' Yes, that Lifetime TV. You can almost see the cheesy ad: 'She thought she married the perfect man...until she discovered he was a killer.' Cue the foreboding cello. For Edie, the problem isn't necessarily the given name of the man she married; it's what kind of man she married. When he starts to stand a little taller, speak a little tougher and slip into an East Coast hard-ass twang before he offs Fogarty's two thugs in his front yard, is Tom just defending his family as he did his employees? Or has he truly, as Edie says, 'become Joey,' the man Carl asserts he is and Tom keeps saying he's not? This time, Tom's ability to shoot straight and kill men with his bare hands frightens and sickens her, because not only are those skills rather, um, scary, but he also lied to her. And that lie threatens the family unit. It's a crisis straight out of classic female melodrama. Edie isn't glowing with relief and quiet pride the second time she has to collect Tom from the hospital. Instead, she yells, barfs, cries, and then makes him take a taxi home.
When she takes it upon herself to keep law enforcement out of the equation, however, Edie makes it known that her personal case against Tom isn't closed. It can't be, not when violence is so closely tied to sex in the Cronenberg universe. When Edie and Tom have a knock-down, drag-out fight that leads to some literal and figurative banging on the stairs, Edie's rage and desire speak to that very familiar attraction to cinematic bad boys. Tom's physical power makes him frightening, but it also makes him hot, especially to a woman feisty enough to smack around a man whom she knows really could choke her to death if he pleased (and Maria Bello slugs Mortensen-she's nobody's victim). Cronenberg wisely doesn't turn Edie's lust into a porn fantasy; this second sex scene isn't glamorous and it doesn't end with the pair collapsing into post-coital bliss. He does remind us, however, that on some level, the dangerous man can be a turn-on regardless of one's better judgment. Edie recovers her sense of angry betrayal immediately and all but kicks Tom off of her once they've finished, but her lapse underlines the different kinds of thrills provoked by the Tom's newfound (or recovered) testosterone frenzy. Those thrills, though, can leave some vivid bruises.
Edie doesn't witness Tom's final murderous exploits. We do, and in the process, we see that Tom and Edie are ultimately fighting to preserve the same thing: their family unit. It isn't so much a choice between past and present as it is a choice between families. Tom can either opt for the 'women's sphere' of domestic happiness with a loving spouse, bright children, mellow job and pretty farm house, or the men-only Mob family of opulent mansions, nameless broads, and killing people for sport as well as business. In the Guy Movie universe, the latter might appear to be the more appealing and glamorous option. For the haunted, complex Cronenberg man, however, he'd rather have the peace of the former if he can. On some level, Edie knows this without having to see what Tom does in Philadelphia. After all, even if his plate and silverware aren't arranged for him on the table, they are out and ready to go on the counter should Tom return home during the family dinner hour. Tom may have a capacity for violence, but that isn't what he wants. It isn't who he is. He's lived the Guy Movie fantasy and he doesn't want it. Now there's a man a woman could love. And did I mention he looks like Viggo Mortensen?