‘A History of Violence’ questions mankind’s ability to change

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Scientist Charles Darwin noted in his theories of adaptation and survival of the fittest that all living creatures have animalistic characteristics motivated by a single need to survive.

Further studies have concluded that man’s adaptive existence has changed from “gatherer” to “hunter.” Whether these theories are considered to be true or simple science fiction, the stories of the history of man all share the commonality of violence as a central support to their overriding theme.

Simply put, violence has affected our own history. Mankind can no longer accurately represent himself as a peaceful creature. Thus mankind’s history is “A History of Violence.”

The story of “A History of Violence” begins in a small Indiana town where Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is an average man who took the American dream to heart by opening a local diner that services the entire town.

The film’s early scenes are reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt,” in their presentation of small town living. The town had not Starbucks or 7-11s. Instead, the director David Cronenberg captures the hometown citizens with such a warm vitality that one wonders if the horror/independent director has turned over a new leaf.

Building his career on the essence of violence, Cronenberg, director of “Naked Lunch,” and “Videodrome” became the auteur of violent masochistic cinema. He differentiated his work from the “Mean Street” violence of Martin Scorsese and found bloodied reluctance in the films of Oliver Stone. Instead, he was a director that built himself on the potential of mankind.

Viggo Mortensen’s performance is no different, though his physicality brings truthfulness to his hometown demure. He seems to embody Tom Stall, representing him as true Midwest “folk” seeking the solitude and simplicity of life.

One night while closing the cafe, two unidentified men enter and ask for coffee. “We’re closed,” Tom tells the men, but they do not move. “I’m sorry gentlemen, but we’re closed,” Tom said again. Without warning, the men draw their guns on the restaurant and suddenly this peaceful “Pleasantville,” existence Tom occupies is shattered into a tense thriller. “We don’t have much money here,” Tom tells the men, but they do not seem to care.

What follows is the moral allegory of violence and human nature. Tom smashes the hot glass coffee pot against one of the robbers knocking his gun to the floor. Without hesitation, Tom, then hops across the counter grabbing the gun and shooting the second robber in one fluid motion before turning the gun on the initial man, shooting him in the face.

That night, the media and other town locals begin calling Tom an American hero, but Tom seems reluctantly unwilling to embrace his new social status. Instead, all Stall seeks is a return to his peaceful existence of simple small town living.

Back at the house, he ignores the local reporter in favor of his family, skewing his media image. It is clear he is not opening up to the media for some strange reason.

It is simply unfair to write the rest of the plot, because though the story remains misleadingly straightforward, and like such films as ‘The Crying Game,” its climax is best kept secret. It is important to note though, that the film’s inherent message is not found through story, but through its characters.

Viggo Mortensen’s reserved portrayal of a man running from his past is simply heartbreaking, and notably and very successfully never bleeds into the melodramatic.

The films exploration of the moral fibers that drive mankind’s violence from the domestic to the crime ridden brings remarkable performances from Ed Harris, Maria Bello, and William Hurt whose one-scene performance propels him to places we never expected him to go.

Overall, “A History of Violence” divulges the possibility or impossibility of mankind being unable to change, unable to forgive, unable to forget. It suggests that man is naturally violent and though he attempts repression, he is at the core an instinctual animal.

The film explores the inheritability of violence from generation to generation and answers that inevitable question: Do guns kill people or do people kill people? This film is truly one of the best American films this year and quite possibly in recent memory.

Cronenberg’s masterful direction allows the film to answer as many questions as it asks and leaves us wondering what is in store for mankind’s History of Violence.

Drew Pletcher can be reached at ane@sundial.csun.edu.