Gautaman Bhaskaran
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David Cronenberg: A History of Violence

The Canadian film director, David Cronenberg, was once nicknamed “Baron of Blood”. Not unfairly. His 1975 debut feature, “Shivers”, was the beginning of a bloody onscreen trail. But 11 years later, he ended this phase with “The Fly”.

He has since then become cerebral, but never stopped being controversial or candid in a brutally shocking way. His large doses of what many saw as perverse sex in “Crash” and “M Butterfly” and his experiments with “alternate realities” in “Spider” and “Naked Lunch” among others made this now 62-year-old auteur a man that none could ignore. Many found his cinema gruesome and even distasteful, but always novel and engaging.

Maria Bello and Viggo Mortensen in New Line Cinema's A History of Violence
Maria Bello and Viggo Mortensen in "A History of Violence"
However, Cronenberg now appears to have begun yet another chapter, where he may play with violence and even sadism, but with admirable restraint and a sense of aesthetics. In some strange way, his style appears Hitchcockian, though there is an essential difference between the two moviemakers. We knew the crime in a Hitchcock work, even the offenders. But with Cronenberg, these are hardly apparent. He continuously challenges us, almost teasing us to find out what he is about to get us into.

His latest movie, “A History of Violence” – screened in the Competition section of the 2005 Cannes International Film Festival -- is as the title suggests, all about violence, but it is so different from the rest of his repertoire that one finds it hard to identify this film with the Cronenberg oeuvre.

“A History of Violence” begins with gruesome shootouts that resemble a typical Western, but soon settles down to an idyllic calm. We see Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) running a popular eatery with his wife helping him out when she is not pleading cases in law courts. There is sex between them, there is joy and there is a sense of peace. And all these are disturbed when two gangsters break into his diner. Tom shoots both, much to the astonishment of his lawyer wife, and he becomes a local celebrity chased by the media and featured on television channels.

This publicity brings another hoodlum into Tom’s home who claims that Mr Stall is but an ex-gangster who has run away from Philadelphia and has now settled in Indiana under an assumed name and character. Tom’s wife and two children find it hard to believe this. But they also wonder how Tom who had always preached tolerance could kill with the ease of a professional gunman.

In an interview to the media, Cronenberg had said while he was referring to human identities: ”I do not think that an identity is something that is given to us genetically like the colour of our eyes. It's something that is created. There's will involved. In ‘Spider’, I was examining the same subject - what happens when there's not the will or strength to hold an identity together. I think, every morning, you wake up and have to recreate yourself and remember who you are, assemble that person. I think it's possible to become someone else - by force of will." That is Tom in “A History of Violence”.

However, here Tom is not merely cloaking his true identity, happy that he in his home and with his family, but he is also trying to preserve this existence. At any cost, even by turning a killer, an act that first makes him a hero in his wife’s eyes. But later, she is not so sure, especially after the third bad guy turns up to tell the family that Tom is not what he appears to be.

Some critics see “ A History of Violence” as “an allegory for the invasion of Iraq”. Cronenberg agrees, though somewhat reluctantly, that his latest work can be read as a “critique” of the Bush administration. America’s history of violence has been adopted as the U.S. foreign policy.

Cronenberg explains in the course of his innumerable published interviews “there is violence in each one of us. This is amply demonstrated in a scene in the picture where Tom forces himself sexually on his wife. The violence is part of the sexuality. It's very possible, maybe inevitable, that violence is incorporated into sexuality. And also there is a sexual element in violence. There is a bizarrely sexual element in state executions, for example - which no one wants to talk about who is in favour of the death penalty. But there is a weird, perverse sexuality involved in executing somebody. It's a long, difficult subject - but sex and violence do seem to go together very well."

Despite such undertone of violence that often disturbs a Cronenberg work, the director himself is quite the opposite. He is genteel and calm on the sets and off it. He never shouts and screams, and his team of men has been with him for two decades.

It is evident that Cronenberg inspires fierce loyalty in his employees. His crew has been working with him for 20 years. He is always open to all points of view, though he is also absolutely sure of what he wants.

David probably acquired such a lovely disposition and character from his mother, who was a superb pianist. His father owned a bookstore and wrote about stamps. They lived in Toronto, and David life was peaceful, shorn of any traumas.

But, for some, Cronenberg’s cinema could be incredibly traumatic. However, “A History of Violence” marks a turning point in his career. After watching it, quite frankly, one can come away with only a sense of deep satisfaction. I am not saying that this piece of work is any greater than his earlier ones. But it sure is far more appealing, far more pleasing and admittedly far more aesthetically restrained.


Actor, director, scriptwriter, cinematographer, David Cronenberg wears many hats. A quick look at some of the films he has directed.

Shivers (1975)
Rabid (1977)
Fast Company (1979)
The Brood (1979)
The Dead Zone (1983)
The Fly (1986)
Dead Ringer (1988)
Naked Lunch (1991)
M Butterfly (1993)
Crash (1996)
Camera (2000)
Spider (2002)

(This story appeared in The Hindu dated October 9 2005)

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