It goes without saying that Jesus Christ is everywhere: He is in you and me and many films of Hollywood cinema – in the journey of the hero. Now I never tire of looking for Jesus, lurking in the subtext, and am prone to point out the parallels given the opportunity, and so I was delighted when talking about A History of Violence with my other half, she proposed a Jesus parable. Oh yes. He is always welcome here.
It goes like this: Tom Stall, an all-American family man, runs a diner where there is an attempted robbery. In an act of self-defence he kills the two assailants, with panache. Heralded by local news as a hero this humble man is then visited by a mysterious out-of-towner who claims that Tom is really a gangster. It transpires that Tom is a personality invented, and that he does in fact have a history of violence.
What is so great about this and many of David Cronenberg’s films is the complicated characters, their motivations and internal struggles – all of which are portrayed beautifully in this film, key moments happen wordlessly as you watch an expression take form, as emotions are experienced in sequence, leaving you to figure what is being communicated.
In keeping with Cronenberg’s fascination with sex, he had written additional scenes into the adaptation to allow this complex exchange of vulnerability. The first features Tom’s wife Edie dressing up as a cheerleader, trying to inject some excitement by enacting the teenage years that they never had together. A few themes are established in this scene (as well as the first ever 69 in mainstream cinema): the idea of a past that does not exist or is somehow lost, role-playing and the exhilaration attached to being with a stranger.
Later, as Tom’s true identity comes to light, there is a mirrored sex scene that begins as a fight, and continues being a fight afterwards. It is so strange and captivating. Cleary Edie feels betrayed and confused, and yet this is a dose of sexual excitement that she couldn’t even fabricate. Before she was pretending, through the cliche filter through which she understood deviance, but now she is experiencing the real thing, complete with its dark and violent underpinning, on the stairs no less, leaving bruises on her back as a symbolic memento. (Turns out that the amount of real bruises on actress Maria Bello had to be covered up in order to not detract from the one they show in the film.)
Cronenberg’s decisions always seem to enhance the story he wants to tell, they are motivated by intention. His portrayal of violence always has a purpose, he does not shy way from showing gore and brutality, and in fact makes a point of it, making you take in the consequences of violence.
I think it was director Michael Winterbottom who proposed that film certificates are the wrong way around: that the eradication of blood or physical pain requires an intellectual mind to know that this is fantasy, that you should have to deal with the fallout of violence. Or words to that affect. Either way I think it’s something that Cronenberg does expertly in all of his films, along with Gaspar Noe, with a great style too.
In History of Violence he punctuates any moment of badass combat, with a few seconds dedicated to looking at the wounds, the mangled flesh. In fact Cronenberg edited out some gunshots in the diner as he thought it was glorifying the violence in the scene.
Cross necklace wearing Tom Stall is hurt on separate occasions, notable injuries are the semi-stigmata that he receives through a gunshot to the arm and stabbed through the foot. He tries to avoid violence initially though he is really fucking good at it. And his real name is Joey Cusak – ol’ JC.
Now why would there be a Jesus parable in this story? Maybe it’s dealing with the idea of forgiveness and rebirth. Are we able to be forgiven of our past sins and move on or will they always be present under the surface, awaiting some catalyst to draw them out.
As with Bill Pullman’s Fred in Lost Highway, he is freed of his sins by becoming someone else, but unlike Tom Stall, he physically transforms and has no real memory. This was an imagining of OJ Simpson and the idea that he disassociated from the murder he had committed as a defence mechanism, convincing himself in the process.
But Tom cannot escape his past. His violent tendencies will come back as he protects himself and his family, and also we see his son begin this cycle as he kills a man himself. Another great wordless exchanges as Tom looks at him with anger, forgiveness, and reassurance as he realises what he will have to live with.