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A History of Violence (2005)

When I was in college I took a film class and my discussion section was headed by a very opinionated TA. In one meeting, he told us that the rebel alliance in the first three Star Wars movies was essentially a fascist organization. I thought he was full of it until I saw The Phantom Menace and saw more clearly the fascist subtext in Lucas’s thinking. The other claim this TA made that I remember had to do with A Clockwork Orange. He said that a director couldn’t make a film against violence while at the same time showing that violence. Since Kubrick stylized the violence in the film, he was in fact aesthetizing the very thing the film was supposedly against. I think this is an overly facile view of the movie, but the general point still holds. How can an artist, especially one in a visual medium, tackle an issue without falling into the trap of fetishizing that issue? For instance, how can you explore the topic of the media’s depiction of violence against women in a film without showing it and perhaps adding to the very thing you are decrying? This idea resurfaced for me recently after I read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, watched the film version of it, and then also saw David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence.

The title for Stieg Larsson’s novel is more accurately translated as Men Who Hate Women. Before every major section of the book, Larsson provides statistics about violence against women in Sweden. So without even getting into the plot, it’s obvious what one of the main themes in the book is. Yet in order to explore this theme, Larsson shows us some revolting acts of violence perpetrated by men against women. On the one hand, I understand the need to see the horror so that it doesn’t remain hidden. On the other hand, the novel is hardly realistic, dealing as it does with a goth super computer hacker who has a photographic memory and is attracted to men the author’s age. The other problem is that the book shows us little hope for any other situation. Every woman in this book, save perhaps for Erika Berger, is a victim. Every one (again, save Erika) has been a victim of abuse at one time or another. The only options for women seem to be to shrink under the abuse and, in extreme but all too common cases, die, or fight back and get revenge. In either option, the victimhood of the woman is a given. And so the novel stands opposed to violence against women, but accepts the narrative that women are victims. This gets even odder if we look at the men in the book. All the good men– Mikael Blomkvist, Henrik Vanger, Dirch Frode– are unmarried at the time of the story. Yes, Mikael and Henrik used to be married, but we don’t see them in close, committed relationships with women in the story. Yes, Mikael has a long-term relationship with Erika, but they do not share an intimate life together. Besides the work life that they share, the intimate life is purely sexual. They sleep with each other when the desire is there, but otherwise live their own lives. I am not morally opposed to such an arrangement; my point is that there is not much hope given for the relationships between men and women in this novel. Men are either abusers, sadists, and/or murderers, or they are nice guys unable to open themselves to a woman. Because in order to be in a long-term relationship, or at least for the relationship to work, the members must be completely vulnerable. In a monogamous, heterosexual context, this means that the man must be willing to be vulnerable to the woman. This to me is the direct opposite of the abusive man. The abusive man cannot let himself be vulnerable, because that jeopardizes his power. And so this novel that goes to such lengths to vilify men who hate woman is, in the end, unable to provide a real alternative to that power dynamic. This is turn makes the power dynamic seem like the only reality. Which means that the novel, by not really challenging the paradigm, confirms it.

The film version is even more egregious in this regard. While the novel did provide some mildly positive male/female couplings with Mikael and Erika, Mikael and Cecilia, and Mikael and Lisbeth, the film gets rid of these relationships except for the one between Mikael and Lisbeth. On top of this, the character of Erika is greatly diminished in the film. In the novel, she’s the editor of The Millennium and obviously in a position of power. She argues with Mikael about the direction the magazine should go in and even manipulates behind his back. In the film, her position is unclear and all decisions are made by Mikael, to which Erika merely agrees or disagrees but has no say in. I realize that in a film things have to be cut, but it’s interesting that what is cut here are the only potentially positive male/female relationships and a powerful female character. Add to this the graphic depictions of Lisbeth’s two rapes at the hands of Nils Bjurman and you have a movie that relentlessly abuses women. The film also adds photos of the murders that Mikael and Lisbeth are investigating. The photos are of female bodies, abused and mutilated. These photos are shown several times throughout the movie, so much so that their presence seems to be less about shock and more about voyeurism. So while I would never claim that this film encourages violence against women, it tries to titillate us with it. It uses it for entertainment, not to make us think.

And this brings me to Cronenberg’s A History of Violence. First off, to say that this is a movie against violence would be to ascribe to it a didactic intent that it does not have. Yet the film doesn’t romanticize violence either. Far from it. It wants to examine our romanticization of violence. Why do we root for the hero when violence always has such a vicious effect? Violence begets more violence, like a cancer. And yet, at times it seems necessary. The two thugs who come into the café in the beginning of the film are intent on killing everyone. They are not open to negotiation. Immobilizing them is the only option. So isn’t Tom’s reaction justified? Like in a novel, violence is a theme here and Cronenberg wants us to examine it. And he does this by showing it. When Tom/Joey takes out the thugs, the camera shows us the aftermath. We see one of the thugs, his jaw destroyed, choking in his own blood. It’s disgusting. He’s not a movie villain who grabs his chest when he’s shot and falls down. He is a man whose body has been destroyed by violence. Cronenberg shows us this again when Tom/Joey drives another thug’s nose into his skull. Again, it’s disgusting and brutal. But that’s the point. We want to root for the homesteader protecting his family from the vicious outlaws– it’s a popular American narrative– but Cronenberg wants us to see the effects of that narrative. And it’s unsettling. He takes this into sexual territory with the relationship between Tom/Joey and Edie. In the famous “stairs” scene the couple falls to blows and Tom/Joey tackles Edie onto the staircase and begins groping her. Yet Tom/Joey is suddenly repulsed by what he is doing and tries to get away. At that moment Edie grabs him by the head and forces him to kiss her. Part of her is disgusted with the violent man her husband is showing himself to be, but part of her is turned on as well. Yet my writing here actually simplifies what is really an incredibly complex scene.

I could go on about the various explorations of violence in Cronenberg’s film, but my point is that the movie manages to explore a theme without fetishizing it. Partly this is because the violence in the film is so sudden and brutal. But more importantly this is because Cronenberg wants us to examine and ask questions. He is not preaching. He takes no moral high ground, besides the need to be honest with ourselves. Yet I also think he does this through detailed observation. Even though the plot is simple and perhaps as unrealistic as the one in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the emotions are not, especially the emotions of the married couple. Tom/Joey and Edie are very real. They play around when they have sex. They have real sex. They misunderstand each other. They defend each other. They are one of the most realistic married couples I’ve seen in a film for a long time. And this grounds what would otherwise be a juvenile romp in the realm of real human experience. And so the film doesn’t leave us being entertained; the film leaves us being moved and questioning ourselves and our society. That sounds like art to me.


(written November 8, 2012)