Sunday, November 22, 2009

Film Review: A History of Violence

The film I choose was “A History of Violence,” Directed by David Cronenberg. I choose this film because it does a great job of highlighting the way that the media portrays violence, specifically violence committed by men and to me. All but two individuals that were killed in the film were men. This concept echoes the idea that crime is often done by men to men. The opening scene in this film introduces the level of violence that would be displayed throughout the movie. Two male criminals have just killed an entire family without blinking; this reflects the thought that men are more capable of senseless killing.

Our initial impression of the protagonist, Tom Stall, is that he is a loving, caring father and husband. He appears to have the “typical” American life, with two children and a wife but underneath the surface Tom has some major skeletons in his closet. When the criminals who were introduced in the beginning roll into the small town where Tom and his family reside, Tom takes action and masterfully kills both men in a little more than a blink. He is now praise as an “American Hero” who has dutifully saved the day but now his picture is in every paper and on ever news station. This alerts his brother who has been looking for him for more than twenty years. This is bad for Tom because not even his family knows about his dark past as Joey Cusack, a mobster from Philly who has turned his life around to be a “good guy” by our society’s standard. When Confronted by one of the men sent to kill him, he denies being Joey Cusack. It is almost as if Joey is Tom’s alternate identity, a more violent and cold hearted version of himself, the kind of man who can kill someone without a second thought. This perpetuates the idea that crimes are committed by certain types of people, but we know crime is not limited to the strange and deranged. Hollywood would have us believe that you can tell who the “bad guys” are just by looking at them. Take for example Ted Bundy; he was considered attractive by most standards and used that advantage to lure many women to their death.

In one scene, the Sheriff says to the mobsters that are looking for Tom, “this is a nice town, nice people.” This puts forth another Hollywood made standard that bad or violent things do not happen to “nice” people, which leads into a binary form of thinking that there are bad people and good people but according to the just world phenomenon good people do not get hurt. This can be thought of as a form of victim blaming, the person must have done something wrong to deserve such treatment. Individuals are not that simple, we cannot be categorized as good or bad. I am sure most of us would like to consider ourselves good people but bad things happen regardless of what you do or who you are.

In search of more information about the film, several sources say the director toned down the violence in the film in efforts to not glorify the use of violence in movie making. I commend him on that attempt, but the role that the media plays in our culture is a very influential one. If taken at face value this film can appear to be promoting violent behavior in forms such as domestic violence; in the moments up to the infamous sex scene where Edie and tom violently seek an outlet for all the emotionally charged action that has taken place over the last few days, she slaps tom and it as if his alter (violent ego) Joey comes out and Edie says, “Fuck you Joey.” I would interpret this as Joey being the violent persona and Tom is the “good guy” who can do no wrong. It was a very creative way to juxtapose the good and bad qualities that can be within one person. It also says something about what society thinks a man should be and what he has the potential to become. Her anger is received with sexual tension and a violent sex scene takes place on the stairs of their home. The scene was so aggressive that the actress that played Edie had to cover up some of the bruises she sustained as a result.

This film also did a very good job of highlight the tension and aggression that happens so often between young men in sports. Tom’s son Jack has several run-ins with the school bully, Bobby. One moment in the film that displays a high level of aggression in relation to male athletes. This scene occurs shortly after a baseball game involving Jack and Bobby. I thought it was especially relevant when speaking to masculinity:

“Bobby: A little hero here, huh? A little superstar here. The little hero saves the day at the last minute.
Jack: What? Bobby, it’s just a game, okay? It’s just stupid gym class.
Bobby: Who you calling stupid?
Jack: No, I said gym class was stupid.
Bobby: “No, I said gym class was..” Listen to this little faggot!
Jack: Yeah, you’re right. I’m both little and a faggot. You got me dead right.
Bobby: Come on, chickenshit, let’s do this!
Bobby: What would be the point? I mean, you win. You Win. You’ve established your, uh, alpha male standing; uh you’ve established my unworthiness; but doing violence to me just seems… pointless and cruel.
Bobby: Don’t you think! Let’s do this, you punk bitch!
Jack: Shouldn’t that be “little, punkass, chickenshit, faggot bitch?”

That entire scene speaks so well to the environment that our society often creates for men. Men continually feel pressure to compete and conform to the standards of being “masculine.” The use of the words faggot, pussy, chickenshit, and bitch are all attacks to his masculinity. Eventually, Jack cannot control his frustration and kicks Bobby’s ass along as well as one of Bobby’s friends. I thought this was a very accurate portrayal of what it is like for men who get bullied and how exasperating that can be but was it right to fight violence with violence or was it simple a case of self defense? That is a matter of opinion but I think it sends the wrong message to young men who do experience bullying in their own lives; fight back is not always the solution to the problem. On a bigger scale we see the effects of bullying in teen suicide rates and depression, particularly for men.

The History of Violence does leave room for interpretation. I would not say that it is for those who react negatively to violence but that is an obvious give away based on the title alone. I still have mixed emotions about this film. I do not understand the need for senseless violence but in terms of violent films that have a purpose, I believe that if you are able to distance yourself from such behaviors (have good judgment of wrong and right) and do not condone such actions in your own life it can be appreciated and entertaining.

No comments: