05 October 2005

By J.J. Helland

Reviewers of David Cronenberg’s new film, A History of Violence have made much of the movie’s bloodshed as an adroit social commentary on America’s complicated obsession with violence and its linkage to sexual energy. But they’ve overlooked the thorny spiritual quest of the film’s protagonists.

David Edelstein of Slate swooned over the film’s bloodlust, its “sudden bloody discharges,” that “are lightning-fast and deliciously satisfying — orgasmic, even.” Manohla Dargis ofThe New York Times agreed, arguing that “few directors working today know more about the erotics of screen violence than this filmmaker.” And Andrew Sarris of The New York Observer declared the film “a comment on American movies and the violent ecstasies they provided to audiences around the world.”

But that’s not all that’s going on in this story. Beyond the violence and its socio-political ramifications, one is left with a powerful argument for a more nuanced conception of redemption — a vision contrary to the quick-fix, “extreme makeover” mentality that regards “redemption” as something vague, spiritually devoid, and easily-won. The fact that many in the media failed to take note of the spiritual dimensions of Violence might confirm how reductive and hollow the concept has become, and how redemption narratives seem to be taken for granted by the media without any real scrutiny of their spiritual foundations.

And that is precisely why A History of Violence is so compelling. It doesn’t treat the idea of redemption as something that can be attained by just reading a few self-help books. The movie tells the story of Tom Stall, a Midwestern family man confronted by a violent past antithetical to the calm and peaceful life he leads now. Trouble comes when, in a feat of heroics, Stall kills two men attempting to rob his diner, bringing him local fame and the unwanted attention of mobsters who threaten Stall and his family. To save his family, and to stop more violence, Stall must engage in violence.

But Cronenberg gives the viewer subtle hints that this isn’t just the story of some righteous vigilante and the metaphysical implications of killing sprees. Stall is a church-going, cross-wearing man who describes his past struggles with violence as years spent “in the desert.” The true message of the film is not the sensual deployment of violence per se, but rather the messy notion that sometimes violence can be used as a vehicle that expedites redemption. Or can it? The last scene of the film leaves that question unanswered. Maybe that’s the way it should be.

J.J. Helland is a graduate student at New York University. His last essay for The Revealer was “How The New Yorker Makes Rick Warren Safe for Secular Consumption.