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No Shane in Watching: A History of Violence

October 2, 2015

This started with Shane (1953) about a week ago and continues today with a look at David Cronenburg's take on an age old story: 


I first saw David Cronenburg’s A History of Violence (2005) in the late twilight of Blockbuster. I may have watched it with my parents. I remember having liked it. I remember it having to do with ‘history’ and with ‘violence.’ I watched it again recently. I still liked it. Maybe as much. Maybe not. I can’t quite remember.

The film is a patchwork of mythologies. The farm on which Tom and Edie Stall (Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello) live is an Eden of sorts, not quite as stunning as the Starrett homestead in Shane with its might Tetons, but just as equally mundane and safe and harkening somehow someway to Eisenhower’s sense of duty and Norman Rockwell’s sense of beauty. This is America, its green and fertile breast.

Yet the film borrows its sense of evil from John Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy. Blood is as old as Cain, maybe older. The film’s opening sequence finds two highwaymen sitting in a car in front of a cozy highway motel. One of the men leaves. The other stays. The car rolls slowly forward and the camera with it. Then the camera enters the motel’s office. A bloodstain marks the wall behind the desk. The murders are recent, yet Cronenburg’s eye sees them as old. A girl will enter the office. She will not be so old. She will be introduced to the barrel of a gun. The world is a cold, dark place. The audience sees how this will go.

Thus, when the Stall farm outside of a small American town is introduced, the garden is to be inevitably altered by sin. The stranger in the form of a snake must come to town. After all, we have already seen the stranger lurking with his gun. And yet A History of Violence possesses other plans.

The men slither into town. The men hope to rape and pillage. They slide their way into Tom Stalls’ diner. They disrupt and bully. They find Tom Stall to be a much bigger snake lurking in the grass behind a coffee counter. He kills them both.

In arguing for why the classic Western Shane is not simply a morality play, Roger Ebert claims the film’s title character “is so quiet, so inward, so narcissistic in his silent withdrawing from ordinary exchanges, that he always seems to be playing a role. A role in which he withholds his violent abilities as long as he can.” A History of Violence takes this noble role-playing, which both creates and mocks classic notions of heroism and sacrifice, a step further and twists it into something much more horrifying and haunting.

In the opening shots of George Stevens’ film, Shane rides into a wide shot of the valley’s green wood. When he crosses the valley floor, he is but a speck, and despite his buckskin clothes, he appears less a hunter than a man at one with nature. When his foil Jack Wilson rides into town, the camera and music present him as a dominant killer; a man of will and might. When Shane rides to confront Wilson in the film’s climactic gunfight, the camera presents him less as what he was and more in kind with a man like Wilson. Ebert’s review suggests that Shane always was and will be a man like Wilson. As much as his love for the Starrett family might save them, it cannot save himself. Tom Stall it turns out is this kind of Shane.

When Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) arrives in town, he knows Tom Stall’s secret. He knows Stall is but a role played by old and talented killer. He is Jimmy Cusack, the brother of Richie Cusack (William Hurt). To remain Tom Stall, then, Jimmy Cusack will have to kill all those who know his secret. He will have to kill his way to peace. Of course, in doing so, his family will learn his secret, and Jimmy Cusack, unlike Shane, can never truly disappear.


Because of the film’s graphic novel roots, much of its action contains a rather cartoonish glimmer, like something akin to particular scenes in M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable (2000). These scenes may not have aged all that well even in only ten years’ time. Still, the shell game of who is the film’s real stranger—its real Cain—remains an intriguing bit of inventive storytelling. So, too, does the notion that sin did not undo the garden but made the garden possible.

In the film’s forceful finish, Richie Cusack tells Jimmy Cusack of how he tried to strangle him in the crib. The story shrouds itself in fratricide and stolen inheritances. Each brother appears equally capable of being a Cain or an Abel. The dialogue in the film’s final confrontation also calls to mind the birth of Jacob and Essau, only rather than attempting to pull one’s brother back into the womb the effort instead seems intent on pushing him out of life. As gruesome and bloody as the film is, a friskiness permeates its final encounters with violence. Death comes not with a whispered breath but with a touch of trickery.

Neither Ricky nor Jimmy attempts to slay the other in honest fashion. There is no honorable gunfight, even in the manner that Jack Wilson might recognize. Instead, there is Jimmy escaping, barely, from being outnumbered and ambushed. Then, there is Ricky following Jimmy in flight from his office. Ricky looks to the front door, left ajar. He walks outside. He falls for his brother’s misdirection. When he turns around, he has just enough time to utter, “Jesus,” before his brother blows his brains out. This does not seem humorous, I know, but in the frame where Ricky spots the open door is a statue of Hermes, the ultimate Greek Trickster who knows a thing or two about getting one over on a brother.

And like Hermes, Jimmy—I mean, Tom Stall—covers his tracks, which is to say his history, to find a place at the supper table. He returns home. His family stares at him. He sits. His daughter sets a plate before him, and he is to eat with the gods, only they are the middle class values in the middle of America. All he had to do was murder and, then, murder some more. The film ends with his eyes begging his wife, and us, to forget the past. 

Bryan Harvey tweets @LawnChairBoys

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