A History of Violence

Viggo Mortensen plays a diner owner, Tom Stall, in a small town whose act of heroism puts him in the news and reveals his whereabouts to the mob, who happen to know his true identity as a mob hitman on the run from Philly. The mobmen come after him and taunt his wife and kids until he fights back and returns to Philly to settle his score. This is Cronenberg, so it is graphic. It’s actually a rather redemptive tale of identity that contrarily wallows in gratuitous graphic physical pictures of violence and sexuality. I get the sense that this contrast of exploitation with strong moral underpinnings is more a reflection of Cronnenberg’s own struggle of two natures, one to the flesh and one to goodness, than it is a justifiable aesthetic of hard hitting morality. Anyway, Tom’s journey is one of rejecting his past of violence and embracing a normal life of mundane living – and enjoying it. This is the profoundly moral aspect of the tale. Unlike the sniveling regretful snitch in Goodfellas, who grudgingly lived a “normal” life under the witness protection plan, we see in Tom a hero who embraces goodness AS good, and kindness AS preferable. Quite a respectable irony in a movie like this. One is reminded of the haunted soul of William Munny in Unforgiven, who must become his old “evil” self in order to defeat evil. This is the same for Tom, who has an almost dual personality and turns it on and off, but with somewhat more control than Munny. The problem is that Tom did not CHOOSE his life of normality. He ran from the mob NOT out of a desire to change, but out of mere self-preservation because he screwed up a situation. He was hiding in normality, NOT desiring it. It wasn’t until he met his wife that he was redeemed in his character by love. So even though Tom has changed in some way, his current desire to be a different person is not equaled by a desire to right his wrongs or even pay for his sins, but rather by a desire to run from his past. (He blinded a guy with barb wire, which ruined his brother’s chances to move up as kingpin). So of course, his past comes looking for him in the form of the mob who wants payback (the blinded Ed Harris). So Tom must go back to face his mob past and ends up killing the men (in self defense) who want to kill him, thus atoning for his sins and returning to his small family life, begging his family to allow him back in. This very family that he betrayed with his secrets, but certainly without malice. Now, he proves he really does want to be a new man, because he comes back out of choice. So Tom’s redemption is in his seeking to be a new man of goodness, not evil, and he is tested by this and proves enduring in his intent. Perseverance of the Saints. But is Tom truly atoned for? What of all the men he killed in the past? Is it justice for their blood to cry out from the ground unavenged? Is this an example of grace? A man allowed to avoid payment for his sins? I think this is what unsettles me about the story. I see true grace as changing a man to accept responsibility for his past. I saw a news story about a man who was acquitted of a murder 25 years earlier, who after becoming a Christian went and confessed to the crime and did his time – 25 years later. Now, this is grace to me. This is true redemption, true change of natures. Forgiveness that makes a man courageous enough to face the legal consequences of his behavior in order to start anew, and out of love for the victim. Well, the movies don’t always work as well as real life I guess.

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