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The Femme Vivante in A History of Violence

A column article, Comics Bulletin Soapbox by: Shawn Hill

Director: David Cronenberg
Script: Josh Olson
Based on the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, William Hurt

Plot: Some mobsters with a grudge claim a family man who runs a diner in a small town is living a lie, and they target his family. If true, this throws a big monkey wrench into the bucolic life he shares with his two children and his legal eagle wife. Is he who he said he was or not?

Comments: This film has a wonderfully simple, solid clarity of storytelling. Cronenberg is in non-showy mode. The macabre bits are quick flashes, and he relies on his actors (a uniformly strong cast) to play out his usual concerns with horror. There are only minimal (though very bloody and realistically unpleasant) special effects. This a methodical, almost plodding mystery, proceeding at its own pace to unfold some characters who are not special or heroic so much as flawed, real and emotionally responsive in reasonable ways to varying degrees of danger.

What led me to write this essay (which is not really a conventional review of the film but rather a rumination of one aspect of it) is the role Cronenberg paints for the female lead (and nearly sole female voice in the movie), Maria Bello’s smart and sexy Edie Stall. He’s made significant changes from the supportive housewife in the book (as he has also done for the son, here given a brainy, verbose nerdiness absent on paper and a subplot that parallels his father’s).

Bello is featured in two crucial scenes in the movie (also the movie’s only two sex scenes--well, unless you count the exceedingly odd greeting between the long-estranged brothers played by Mortensen and Hurt near the end). Cronenberg is responsible for both scenes, and really for fleshing out every character save for a few of the villains, who are pretty much note for note. Wagner’s supporting characters in his series are more memorable than his leads (and his foreword to the trade reveals a strong focus on plot over character, appropriate perhaps to the mystery format but not as interesting as Cronenberg’s psychologically charged film). These sex scenes have a huge emotional impact that sears the protagonists’ personalities and dilemmas into our heads in a way the more stoic and reserved characters in the book never quite reach.

In the first scene, before the bullets start flying, Edie is coquettish and inventive, a lucky man’s wet dream of the perfectly hot wife: both breadwinner and vixen, she’s a witty opposite number to Mortensen’s solid and dependable rural dad.

In the second, the sex occurs after she knows some and suspects more about his questionable background. She’s just saved him from interrogation by the local sheriff, a nonplussed family friend. As she heads upstairs to sort things out in her head, he grabs at her, and she falls on the stairs, and into his arms. What follows is a brutal, passionate encounter that could be read as rape, or as a fantasy of female submission (and generosity) that is a dark counterpart to the playful carnality of their earlier friskier session. Comment on either of these scenes is interestingly sparse amongst many of the published film reviews (most of which focus far more squarely on the dynamics of Tom’s quest), though some critics have wondered if the second scene qualifies as rape.

In the novel, Edie McKenna (Cronenberg changed the last name to “Stall,” and focuses lovingly on the name in various visual cues in the film) is a far less distinctive and more immediately forgiving figure than the anguished woman Bello plays. Wagner’s story, in fact, is much more about a convoluted childhood trauma on the part of the husband, and includes an extended explanatory flashback sequence that Cronenberg doesn’t even include. To him, the mysteries of Tom’s past remain largely opaque. He leaves the horrid truths that were
so scarring to we viewers and our imaginations (which are really grizzly enough).

Rather, Cronenberg is interested in one question: is there an inherent male, societal or genetic propensity for violent conflict? The icy gore of those little bursts of violence that pepper the film, successful in entertaining moviegoers who seek out such splatter, would seem to indicate that there is. Not to mention the expanded subplot concerning Tom’s son, his inheritor in more ways than one.

At the end of the second intimate encounter, Edie pushes Tom off her, spent, and continues upstairs. We later see her nude after showering, with clear bruises on her back, red souvenirs from the rough sex. These are not the only wounds she must bear, as she copes in other scenes where her child is threatened by a thug, during gunplay and in the final scene where she presides over an abundant table, watching sternly as the children strive to welcome the errant father back to his empty place setting.

The whole movie comes to rest on this silent struggle of husband and wife to meet each other’s eyes after the wounds and revelations of the previous hours. A scene that continues past the violent wrap-up of the novel. Throughout the film, Cronenberg’s decisions have expanded (without really altering) Edie’s role. He fills in the gaps, elements of her reaction that the novel was content to imply or omit. Here the ultimate judgment of her husband is placed firmly in the wife’s hands. Final acceptance and rejection is up to Edie, not Tom or even the hopeful children.

But what a Catch-22 her decision will be. If she accepts Tom back, she forgives a very damaging lie despite her feelings of betrayal. If she rejects him she rends her fragile family into tatters, gravely hurting both needy children, at least in the short term, something she’s fought against for the entire film. It’s an impossible choice, and one that Cronenberg takes pains to depict as part of the complex matrix of roles that define woman: arbiter of familial peace and serenity, lioness who leaps into battle to protect her young, and ultimate source of healing and forgiveness for child-like men with wounds of their own. Is there room in there for Edie to assert herself in a way that is positive for her as well?

Bello takes Cronenberg’s many augmentations to this character, the twin pillar of familial strength to Tom’s popular father figure, and runs with them, and is an ample acting to partner to both Mortensen and Harris.

Two other moments in the film stand out. When her son, inspired to excessive violence (though in self-defense) after his father’s actions, is threatened with legal repercussions by the worried Tom, he snaps: “Oh, you don’t think Mom will take the case?”

And in the hospital, as her husband lies injured and some of the truth spills out, she asks in despair: “What about our name? My children’s names? Are they even real?” If woman is to be the sole salve and savior for her man, then Cronenberg seems fully aware of the personal costs of such a traditional and on-demand performance.

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