As a director, David Cronenberg has a history with violence. Whether it’s the violence we do to one another or violence committed against oneself, the Canadian director has long examined its effects on the body and the psyche in his oeuvre. Leading up to A History of Violence (2005), one of Cronenberg’s most accessible features, he examined self-destructive tendencies in Crash and Spider. But what happens when you try to outrun a history of violence? Does it always catch up to you?

Based on the 1997 graphic novel of the same name by John Wagner and Vincent Locke, A History of Violence does feature its fair share of gore. But the true violence comes in the form of the emotional terror a seemingly harmless family man inflicts on his wife and children when his violent past comes back to call.

Viggo Mortensen stars as Tom Stall, the owner of a quaint diner in a quaint Indiana town. He seems to have the perfect slice of American life. A beautiful lawyer wife, a teenage son and young daughter. Tom is part of the fabric of the town. His diner is the gathering place for regulars who sit at the counter and gossip. But when Tom singlehandedly kills two deranged gunmen, he becomes something of a national celebrity. This attention blows Tom’s carefully crafted cover and soon mobsters from Philadelphia come to Indiana hoping to exact their revenge.

Though the movie may feel straightforward compared to a lot of Cronenberg’s output, the director is interested in exploring our country’s fascination with violence. The title itself can be interpreted in a few ways: is it talking about Stall’s own history or perhaps the history of the United States itself?

Take for example a scene where Tom’s son, Jack (Ashton Holmes), finally turns the tables on the two boys who have been bullying him throughout the film. It’s one of those classic crescendos where we’re supposed to cheer when the nerd reaches a breaking point and kicks the living shit out of two football players. Cronenberg juxtaposes that moment of triumph with the following scene where in a shocking moment Tom smacks Jack across the face when he finds out about the fight. Where violence is meant to be celebrated in one scene is then turned into a disastrous moment between father and son in the next.

Cronenberg also examines the violence inherent in sex scenes and how audiences (especially Americans) are more squeamish with body fluids than blood. When I saw A History of Violence in the theater, the woman who sat behind me gasped and talked during the film’s two explicit sex scenes – sex between a husband and wife – and said nothing when Mortensen bashes a guy’s nose into his head. We are indoctrinated from a young age to believe that sex is dirty, but we glorify violence. It’s this dichotomy that Cronenberg is exploring here.

With a different director at the helm, A History of Violence could have been an action blockbuster. All the ingredients are there. But when Tom returns back to his family after wiping out the mob guys who are after him in Philly, the trauma he has inflicted on his family is evident. The son and daughter welcome him back by offering him a place at the table and some food but are they really allowing him to return to the fold? Could they instead be terrified to deny him his place at the end of the table?

As a nation, we cannot outrun the violence on which America was founded. It is inherent in our pop culture and our history books. With A History of Violence, Cronenberg dares us to examine why we enjoy blood and gore so much. It may seem presumptuous for a Canadian to do so but as Americans, we are so steeped in the images of bombs bursting in air that it would likely take someone from just over the border to smack us around with a movie to recognize where we come from.

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