“A History of Violence: The Scars of American History”
By, Kristin Grady
Is violence part of human nature or is it a cycle we can break? Canadian director David Cronenberg didn’t intend to glorify violence in 2005’s A History of Violence. The film is full of stark, color-based symbolism and visual biblical/mythological allegory that shows the lasting effects of violence through generations, without being overly preachy. It’s a delicate matter, creating a film that both appeals to American’s relatively violent tendencies and warns them about it’s dangers. Sussing a killer out from his new life is a similar process. You can’t go in guns blazing, it takes more subtle measures…
The Mother Goddess
The school colors tell us two things: Edie has lived in that town her whole life and things don’t change. This roleplay gives her a chance to let Tom into her youth in the hopes he does the same. Tom didn’t have a youth. Joey did. Beginning the visual religious allegory, Edie is in the pose of a renaissance Virgin Mary, a circle of light creating a halo behind her head. M is technically for Milbrook, but also Mary. The shadow of Tom’s arm is closer to her, creating a V shape to the frame, forming the shape of female genitalia. Her shadow against the door gives her a Botticelli belly, implying her fertility, with a shadowed darkness to it.
From the dialogue in Richie’s office, we learn as a baby, Joey was saved by his mother, which set his core motivation for life. He’s been inflicting defensive violence, seeking salvation in the arms of a Mother Goddess figure, upon which the Virgin Mary is based. Inverting the biblical Jesus tale, the protagonist trades a life of violence for the love of a mother, rather than a father figure. Perhaps this tells Americans that turning towards love could be a means to our own salvation, yet it’s impossible to run from the violence of our past.
The Lasting Effects of Violence
When the second set of mobsters enter Tom’s diner, they’re all wearing black suits like some sort of shadowy government authority. Crime syndicates usually end up as covert feudal states, so they’re not far off. When Fogerty removes his dark sunglasses, a silver triangular ring is visible on his right hand, reflecting the structure of the shot. This shot is inverse of the V shot, creating a pyramid shape, the illuminati eye light fixture directly over his head.
Fogerty is the face of insurmountable power, scarred by violence and vaguely referencing Matthew 5:29 “And if thy right eye offends thee, pluck it out”. It’s his left eye, which seems to have offended Joey. The scars on the face of American history leave us half-blind. A spot of blue hovers over Fogerty’s shoulder, another man in a suit, a blurry shadow of his power, which he needs no outward aggression to display.
Fight or Flight
Immediately after the most graphic shot in the film, of a henchman with the remnants of a bloody roast chicken carcass for a nose, cut to Edie and Sarah in the window. Edie’s shirt is the light blue of a Virgin Mary veil, also matching her bathrobe, representing her power and purity. The slats in the window create a white crucifix in the middle of the frame. By a cafe friend’s comment “See you in church”, we know Edie is a practicing Christian. Like many American Christians, she feels protected by her religion, which is no kevlar vest.
Edie’s full attention snaps from her wounded husband to her concerned child. In this instant, Edie went from a helpless, infantile state to being the grown up. She scoops up Sarah and retreats to the relative safety of the shadows as we all internally scream “Don’t let her see that!” Protective, non-violent reactions to violence are possible. Women are more likely to follow these behavioral patterns, on an instinctual, hunter-gatherer level. Love for Edie saved Joey from a life of crime and love for Sarah probably saved Edie from getting shot in the face through a window.
The religious symbolism woven throughout the whole film doesn’t click into place until the last scene, but from the multiple shots of Tom/Joey in the outstretched “crucified” pose, we can tell he’s being set up as the “Jesus” character, the sacrificial lamb. Instead of Jesus’s placid acceptance of execution, Joey uses violence to keep violence at bay. Many Americans have this mentality, adverse to their religion. There are also references to the prodigal son tale, reversed as Joey is forced to return home. In this shot, Tom’s right foot is “nailed” to the floor as he points a gun toward a green light. He will later injure that hand while murdering a henchman, giving him half stigmata wounds.
Arms outstretched after being shot in the shoulder? This is not a natural way to fall, so it had to be a directorial choice. When Tom rolls over, we realize he’s still barefoot, his injured foot reminding us he’s now half “crucified”.
Probably why he wore pointy shoes in the mansion scene. This shows how Joey survived his whole life, by learning from his mistakes and weaponizing them.
In his last “crucified” pose, Joey is turned away from the camera, towards an open door. His left hand seems ready to grab the classical statue next to him, which is very obviously a phallic shape, flanked by two golden eggs. His other hand points toward the stairs leading up to a fading blue window. His injured hand hangs limp, as he’s feigning submission while planning to fight his way out. The reversal of the Jesus legend clicks into place.
The dialogue in Richie’s office gives us a lot of backstory without being too expositional. Just from a lack of mentioning him, we learn that their father left when their mother was pregnant with Joey. Richie was left insecure by the sudden absence of a parent, relying more on his mother, which is why he attempted to strangle his baby brother for taking her attention away. Richie sets Joey up for a lifetime of defensive violence, creating a killing machine in the process.
“How do you fuck that up?” is the most hilarious line in the movie because Richie is absolutely incredulous as to how Joey usurped his power again. Richie is the “god” character, attempting to sacrifice “Jesus”, as we’ve been expecting him to do for the entire movie. Right before Joey shoots him in the head, Richie’s expression is impressed, almost proud of his brother. Joey kills that pride, which had laid dormant in him for so long.
After shooting Richie, the open door is behind Joey, the stairway leading up to the fading blue light directly behind his head, signifying the power he’s taken back. Tom’s crucifix is around his neck, over his heart, which we saw right before Edie’s cheerleader outfit. Love for his family is Tom/Joey’s motivating factor. Many Americans support the military industrial complex, capital punishment, and the continued subjugation of the impoverished, while claiming to be Christian. They justify the violence by saying they’re protecting their families, doing the opposite of what Jesus would do.
The last shot of Joey and Richie again resembles a Renaissance painting. Stone and mahogany makes the mansion resemble a church or castle. Arches form a proscenium frame, Joey standing over Richie, who’s now in the crucified pose. Joey’s gun hangs limp, aligned with his genitals, telling us neither of them has any power now. Despite the light being directly over his head, Joey’s shadow merges with Richie’s dead body, representing the shadow in him he’s killed.
Being a Canadian progressive Jew, David Cronenberg has a unique perspective on American violence. Canada treats violence as a public health issue, while America sees it more as another war to be fought. Several times throughout history, the Jewish religion has been violently repressed by powers claiming to be Christian. Violence perpetuates more violence, not only through retribution, but also through generations. The dialogue-less last scene shows us things will never be the same for the Stall family. We are left with no clear solution, only reflections of the detrimental cycle of violence that perpetuates American dominance over global politics. Perhaps awareness is the first step in the right direction.
Kristin Grady is a freelance writer, video editor, and graphic designer in Hollywood. Check out more content on imaginationforsale.blog!
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