Friday, December 26, 2008

A History of Violence

Ever watched a film that is all melodrama and cliche? Full of stock characters, dumb villains, and corny dialogue? And an originally-meek-hero-with-steel-inside-who-saves-the-day-by-single-handedly-killing-homicidal-maniacs plot, a thousand variations of which must've been watched by anyone who grew up with Doordarshan Sunday-afternoon movies? "A History of Violence" is one more you can add to the list - at first sight, at least (or, rather, at first plot summary). As a thriller, in terms of plausibility, in terms of contrivances, it struck me as well below par. But as a metaphor for the world we live in - and I'm not trying to be blasphemous here - as a metaphor, it has more truth than... ok, I won't be blasphemous. :)

It - spoilers galore ahead, by the way - is the story of Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), a gentle, likable, middle-aged guy, who makes excellent coffee. But as no one is likely to pay money to watch a movie about a gentle, likable, middle-aged guy making coffee - especially when the movie has the title that it has - rest assured, a few shocking revelations are around the corner.

So there's little mild-mannered coffee-shop owner Tom Stall attending to his customers one day, when two Big Bad Men walk in with the intention of killing everyone in there. Tom then displays a heroic quality to him, that no one suspected him of, when he kills the duo, and saves everyone. As his wife puts it when he asks her whether she isn't sick of hearing about his heroism everywhere, "I kind of like it."

Tom's fame brings with it, though, ghosts from his past. Deadly (and, to be factual, fairly incompetent) gangsters, one of whom he didn't quite see eye to eye with, in the past. Gradually, his family come to realise that more than 20 years back, there was no Tom Stall. There was, however, an unhinged gangster by the name of Joey Cusack, who killed "sometimes for money, sometimes for fun".

"I went out to the desert and killed Joey Cusack. I spent 3 years becoming Tom Stall. I wasn't really born again until I met you. I was nothing," a rather apologetic Tom tells his less-than-impressed wife, who's all the more pissed at him because he'd told her he grew up in Portland, when, in actual fact, he, like Kevin Bacon, is from Philadelphia. Not only is his wife now not on talking terms with him, but... "If I go to the cops about you, will you have me whacked?," his son, who was all gung-ho pride after his dad's heroism at the diner, is now dripping sarcasm.

Tom isn't proud of Joey - in fact, he seems to despise him, the violence. But then again, as his enemies put it, "He's still the same crazy Joey Cusack." Where his loved ones see the caring Tom Stall, they still see, right before them, the monster who ripped out a man's eye with barbed wire. And then there is the way the supposedly long-buried Joey crops up every time Tom or his family is in danger. It is never Tom who does the rescuing. It is always Joey. As this excellent review puts it, it's about "the survival of the fittest. Not the good, the moral, the nice, but the fittest." Tom knows it too - all protestations to the contrary - as the quiet glee in his eyes when he sees his son kill for the first time stands testament to.

Tom isn't the only one whom the camera probes here. There is the initial thrill, the heady rush, as we see our hero Joey take on and eliminate those nasty, cruel villains, against seemingly suicidal odds. But then, rather than have triumphant music rise to a crescendo, we're treated to the effects of his violence. Suffice it to say that when it comes to showing gore and mutilation on the screen, Cronenberg knows few equals. Just as we're about to jump to our feet to cheer and clap for Joey, we're yanked back to our seats.

Violence destroys our relationships, builds walls between us, plants hate in our minds, makes us retreat into our shells. It vaporises any little tenderness we may have in us. It makes us throw out anything resembling logic or reason, and take actions far out of proportion to the perceived threat. Sometimes, we even play into the hands of our enemies.

But it does something else too. It allows us to survive. As "2001: A Space Odyssey" put it, with the most memorable cut I've ever seen, it was when we picked up our first weapon, and learnt to kill, that we started down the road to our space stations and our nuclear power plants. A species facing extinction became the most dominant on earth. That particular science-fiction film ends on a hopeful note - that maybe we will evolve into something more than we are now - but, for the moment, this is the world we live in...

Violence knows no religious, cultural or racial barriers. It is there, ever present. In our homes, in our schools, in the quietest of neighbourhoods, in the gentlest of people. For we couldn't do without it. It gets us our lands, our clothes, the food in our plates, and our facade of gentility. Our right to live, we earn through our ability to kill.

The film is no right-wing "us versus them" tripe. Maybe I'm just looking at it through the prism of recent events, but I detected a rich vein of irony when one character, a police officer, says, "You know, we look out for our own here." Turns out, the "our own" there is far deadlier and crazier than any of "them".

"I remember the moment I knew you were in love with me. I saw it in your eyes," said Tom Stall at the start of the film. The movie ends with him staring into his wife's eyes. What does he see now? Maybe he still sees love, lust certainly, and maybe even grudging, guilty admiration. But things will never be the same again in that family. To quote someone, "There's a certain lack of respect, a certain lack of trust."