Discover more from Everything Is Horrible
History of Puerile Empowerment Fantasies
David Cronenberg's History of Violence is crap.
I finally saw David Cronenberg's "History of Violence." I've mostly avoided his films since Spider in 2002, which is around the point where he abandoned weird gross horror and decided to become a serious filmmaker, with less squick and even more pretentious self admiration.
"History of Violence" does nothing to make me wish I'd seen it earlier. It is a by the numbers retired-assassin-pulled-back-into-the-game glib genre exercise, in which Cronenberg alternates between being a more pretentious Spielberg (via the adorable small town family) and a more pretentious (somehow) Scorsese/Coppola (colorful mobsters enacting exuberant uber violence, but it's okay because the movie says it's wrong.)
Critics loved it somehow, maybe because the title sounds profound? Maybe because it has two mildly kinky sex scenes, with cheerleader costumes and rough sex? I don't know.
Anyway. I wanted to highlight the way that one particular trope here undermines the effort to say anything at all profound about violence. That would be the amnesiac assassin trope.
Technically, Tom (Viggo Mortensen) isn't amnesiac. He's simply left his life as a Phillie mob hit man behind him, ditching deadly "Joey" to become an upstanding small business owner and family man. When he's forced to kill a couple of vicious hoods to protect his restaurant, the resulting publicity alerts his old mob contacts that he's still alive. He doesn't remember his past; it comes and collects him.
But these distinctions don't really matter. In essence, the film works the same way as something like the "The Bourne Identity" or "The Long Goodbye." A nice, average Joe (or Jane) learns that they are not nice or average, but instead have super killing powers. That means that when bad guys come after them, they can magically turn the tables, and prove themselves badder than bad. Tom looks like a quiet, unassuming dingus. But that dingus is in fact a dingus killing machine.
The amnesiac spy trope is a straightforward metaphor for, and expression of, audience identification and empowerment. Movie viewers are like Tom; they're just quiet, normal, everyday folk. But they go to the theater to change into someone else—to feel like they are a Joey, who can blast down any number of tough guy mobsters (and who can, in this case, have sex with Maria Bello.)
"The History of Violence" has been billed as a thoughtful meditation on screen violence. Manohla Dargis at the NYT praised Cronenberg's "refusal to let us indulge in movie violence without paying a price." But there's no price for the indulgence. Cronenberg uses the usual tropes to get you to identify with the hero, and to make you feel powerful when that hero turns from victim to victimizer.
I don't hate the amnesiac assassin trope; it's generally all in good fun (see "American Ultra.") People enjoy feeling like they're empowered, and amnesia is a clever conceit to mirror the audiences feeling of entering into a film without background; it gets at the way cognitive alienation becomes immersion.
But there's something really distasteful about a film that claims to be thinking about the real dangers and costs of violence, and then defaults to the usual lazy dodges to make the audience cheer as their stand in pushes some guy's nose into his brain.
Everything Is Horrible is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.