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Sex, Violence, and the American Dream in David Cronenberg's A History of Violence

Leah Knowles MDS 450 Sex, Violence, and the American Dream 10 May 2011


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Description The nebulous concept of the American Dream (AD) was predicated on the efforts of citizens who envisioned a society of freedom, equal rights, and diligence. The initial motivation behind the Dream was hopeful and idealistic, something worth fighting for. As American culture evolved and technology and capitalism along with it, the perceived goal of the AD changed as well. No longer can the Dream be attained by hard work and honest optimism. In our consumerist culture it has become increasingly popular to achieve (mainly monetary) success through the quickest and easiest means possible. "...The dream itself had become empty. This ultimate despair became a force for destruction" ( Johnston, 2). According to Steven Messner and other sociological theorists, Americans who find the AD an impossible reality may resort to alternative, and even criminal methods to obtain it. "In its early hours, it seemed to be [driven] mostly by anger and frustration--ultimately the anger and frustration of people who felt they had little chance of winning at the American Dream" ( Johnston, 2). Why is the AD so enticing? How far are we willing to go to be eligible recipients of the privilege? Canadian film director David Cronenberg illuminates the lengths we are willing to travel to hold onto the Dream. In "...the director's signature spectacles of sex and violence,..." Cronenberg critiques the epidemic and commonplace depiction of graphic sexual and violent images in our media (Lowenstein, 205). He expands upon this commentary to reflect the reality of violence as a part of our journey toward capitalist and nationalist success. "From our beginnings as a nation, and evermore today, the violence syndrome is a major American pattern" (Goldstein, xii).Sex and violence have not only become mainstays in our quest for the AD, they are both the means to attain and support success and they are the ends in and of themselves. Cronenberg employs common themes throughout his films, not the least of which is the concept of dual-identity. He uses this device to analyze the cognitive dissonance many Americans suffer as they attempt to subvert the institutions which both oppress and support them. "And in A

History of Violence, it is the yearning for a normal life, an American dream more compelling--and more impossible--than winning the lottery" (Taubin, 24). Cronenberg's characters, particularly in his


3 films A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, constantly straddle the line between two opposing worlds as they navigate issues of belonging and loyalty. Tom Stall's character in A History of Violence struggles to hold onto his version of the AD despite a violent past that continues to haunt him. In the film, a history of violence becomes a perpetuation as sex and violence are utilized as tools to achieve (or in this case, maintain) the American Dream. The story begins with the presentation of an idyllic family in small-town America. The Stall family consists of father/husband Tom, wife/mother Edie, teenage son Jack, and young daughter Sarah. Tom owns a small diner in town and when two ruthless criminals on the run attempt to terrorize the establishment, Tom reacts skillfully and instinctively, killing them both with ease. He is cast as a local hero and interviewed by news crews even though the unspoken question remains: how did an average family man react with such cold, automatic ruthlessness? "We quickly realize ...that anyone who can display such an effective use of violence must necessarily be experienced in doing so" ( Joos and Barnard, 88). After the excitement subsides, three members of the Philadelphia mafia visit the town. They claim to have recognized the protagonist's picture on the news but not as the gentle Tom Stall, instead they claim he is really the vicious mobster from Philly, Joey Cusack. In what seems like a case of mistaken identity, the mafia men continue to harass Tom and his family, convinced he is their mortal enemy from the past. They try to force him to return to Philadelphia with them, but his son retrieves the family shot gun and kills the mob boss (Fogarty) to protect his father. Unfortunately for Tom, his son has heard the statement of betrayal as Fogarty stands over him with a gun: "I should have killed you back in Philly." The truth is revealed; Tom Stall was/is Joey Cusack. Toward the end of the movie, Tom/Joey decides he must venture beyond his small town back to his violent roots in Philadelphia. He confronts his gangster brother, Richie, and when he realizes the conflict cannot be resolved peacefully, he resorts to violence, killing his brother and all of his brother's stooges. "And while he killed all of them in self-defense or to defend his family, the efficiency with which he dispatched them is, how can we put it, disturbing" (Taubin, 28). In the end,


4 Tom/Joey returns to his family. They are extremely reluctant to trust him after all that has happened, and the audience is left with a feeling of deep ambivalence about their future as a family.

Evaluation On the surface, the Stall family already seems to have established their own charming version of the AD. When the little girl has a nightmare, both her parents and even her teenage brother get out of bed and sacrifice a good night's sleep to comfort her. The family sits down to a complete breakfast as the son promises to do his chores. Cronenberg seems to be creating a caricature of the typical American family. The model is certainly ideal, but I believe many would deem this perfect depiction of American families unrealistic and unattainable. It is also apparent that no one in this family unit has had to resort to committing crime to achieve the AD. They all seem to be legitimate members of society, each contributing in their own way and reaping the benefits of privilege. Historically speaking, they have achieved the AD through traditional or Puritanical means. They have been blameless, honest, and diligent in their pursuit of success and they are richly rewarded for their efforts. After Fogarty visits the town, however, it becomes increasingly clear that this idyllic rendition of the Dream is something of a mirage. "The American dream embodied by the small, peaceful rural community, itself founded upon the sheltered and protected family unit, rests on its flip side, a violent and even extremely violent past..." ( Joos and Barnard, 84). As Fogarty continues to refer to the protagonist as "Joey," Tom/Joey insists it is not his name. He even repeats aloud several times, "it's Tom. My name's Tom," as if to convince himself along with everyone else of its verity. As the plot unfolds, the audience discovers that not only is this dream founded on a violent past, but it will require more violence to keep it intact. As Adam Lowenstein writes: Indeed, when this new young girl, Sarah Stall, receives comfort from her father, Tom, her mother, Edie, and her teenage brother, Jack, we begin to believe what they tell her--that there is no such thing as monsters, that shadows flee from the light. By the conclusion... we know that the monsters were already there in that cozy room with Sarah telling her not to


5 fear such things. Her family, as it turns out, rests on a foundation of violence, on Tom's buried past life as Joey Cusack, a vicious mobster from Philadelphia (201).

Both the family and the audience want to rationalize or excuse Tom's/Joey's behavior because it seems he is merely trying to protect his family from harm. We feel he has no choice but to resort to violence if his AD is to continue. As his deception is revealed, however, the audience begins to wonder about his true motivations. As a member of the mob, did he only kill out of a righteous desire to protect the good, or did he actually enjoy the thrill of committing violence? The audience identifies with these feelings of betrayal and suspicion as the family realizes they've been living with a monster. Messner offers several theoretical reasons as to why members of society might commit crime. Cultural learning theory most accurately explains the motivation behind the violence in this film. "Cultural explanations of deviance assume that people violate the normative standards of groups to which they do not belong by conforming to the standards of the groups to which they do belong" (Messner, 46). The character of Tom Stall/Joey Cusack complicates Messner's theory in his conflict of dual-identity. While his past defines him as a member of the Philadelphia mafia, his present and hopeful future allow him to live a quiet, crime-free life with his family. When his past returns to confront him, he is faced with a difficult decision. His emotional loyalties lie with the new life he is desperately trying to hold onto, but in order to do that he must employ the brutal methods of those he is fighting. To which group does he truly belong and whose rules is he breaking? "In the case of A History of Violence, the theory of violence is tied to a theory of identity..." ( Joos and Barnard, 87). In considering the AD, it seems much simpler to pretend to have taken the socially accepted route to success, even if it rests on a more sinister, hidden foundation of violence. In his attempts to repress Joey, Tom almost believes his own lie; that he has somehow eradicated his former self. Unfortunately, Cronenberg's characters never seem to resolve their issues with dualconsciousness and Tom/Joey is no exception. "The instigator of the violence is a divided person, without any possible unity or synthesis" ( Joos and Barnard, 87). He may have rejected the part of him the audience deems negative, but that hardly secures his acceptance in the realm of the other.


6 As much as the audience relates to the fear and disgust the family feels when they discover their father/husband is a brutal murderer, they also develop into reluctant allies as the film progresses. Each scene in which the characters are threatened with dangers afford them an opportunity to defend themselves violently. Particularly evident in the parents, there exists a sense of mutual protection as they face the violent men who threaten to invade their home. While Tom/Joey commits the most violent acts throughout the film, he also begins to initiate his wife and son into a life of "shared violence" as they try to protect him and each other (Lowenstein, 208). The most telling example of this initiation comes when Tom calls Edie from the diner after Fogarty drives by in the direction of their home. Tom tells Edie to get the shotgun and load it because he thinks the mafia men are coming to harm her. She obeys this order in nervous panic, and even though it is a false alarm, Edie holds the shotgun, poised to use it if she needs to. Teenage son Jack exhibits his own progression of violence as well. In the beginning of the film the audience is introduced to Jack's bully, who confronts Jack in the locker room at school. Jack, who is sarcastic and unwilling to fight back, jokes his way peacefully out of the altercation. Later in the story, after his father has killed the intruders in the diner, Jack retaliates against his bully in an relentless display of violence. His father hears this news, and their conversation is as follows: Tom/Joey : You stand up to him, you don't put him in the hospital! Jack responds nonchalantly.

Tom/Joey : Listen, smart-mouth! In this family we do not solve our problems by hitting people!" Jack : No, in this family we shoot them! Tom/Joey responds by slapping his son hard across the face.

In this argument, not only does violence enter the private realm via the actions of the family members, but Tom shows that Joey is still very much a part of his identity. It seems violence is not only reserved for protecting his family, but can be used against them as well. Throughout the film, a seemingly loving, well-adjusted family is transformed into a group of vicious, violent people. "The husband has confessed that he and consequently his entire family have


7 been living a lie, but the truth has not made them free" (Taubin, 28). In fact, even though the truth has finally been revealed, it hardly affects Tom/Joey alone. None of the family members can continue to pretend their AD is not dependent on bloodshed to maintain it. "The film's script thus tries to show how all the protagonists learn to live with this violence, which is always co-existing and contemporary and, in the end, ahistorical in its effects" ( Joos and Barnard, 88). The film also questions whether or not this violence is newly learned by Edie and Jack or if it was always inside of them just as it lay dormant for so many years inside Tom/Joey. Instances associated with domestic or familial settings are tainted by violence in the film as well. Specifically, the shotgun is used as both a symbol of brutality and intimacy as it is set on the coffee table, held by Edie while she is in her pajamas, and held by Tom/Joey as he embraces his son, covered in blood. "Cronenberg explained that he prepared for the fight scenes by watching selfdefense training films. He was most impressed by the intimacy of the violence--how it involves moving in on your opponent even if he has [a] gun" (Taubin, 28). Instruments of deadly force and innocent symbols of the domestic are co-mingled to the point at which the characters can no longer distinguish between home and the dangerous world outside, between love and rage. This ambivalence follows them through the rest of the story and it is never truly resolved. "Can the family survive with this new consciousness, this new recognition of their intimacy of violence, the fact that they are the monsters they used to dismiss as phantoms?" (Lowenstein, 202). Their AD may have been simple and pure before, but the truth has allowed violence to become a part of their every day lives, their most intimate moments. One such example of violence and intimacy combined is the sex between Tom/Joey and his wife Edie. There are two sex scenes in A History of Violence, and they illustrate what happens to intimacy once violence becomes an inherent part of it. In the first scene, Edie attempts to simulate the teenage-hood she and Tom never had together. She dresses up in her old cheer-leading uniform to create a typical fantasy for him. The scene "...underlines how a convincing sense of the past was never established between the couple" (Lowenstein, 207). She is wearing white, lacy underwear,


8 possibly symbolic of a kind of Victorian innocence. The couple seems to have an exciting, passionate sexual relationship and a happy marriage. After they have sex, Tom tells her he feels lucky for having met her. She replies, "you are the best man I have ever known. Luck has nothing to do with it." Juxtaposed dramatically with the first scene is the sexual encounter the couple shares after the lie has been uncovered. Some have written that in the second scene Edie "...has sex with Joey, not Tom..." (Lowenstein, 201). Moments before, Edie protected Tom/Joey from the police and she pushes him away from her to go upstairs. He follows her and she hits him, calling him "Joey" as if to remind him their relationship will never be the same and she never really knew him. What follows can only be described as a mutual rape. They fight physically and when Tom/Joey attempts to retreat, Edie pulls him toward her and engages him sexually. She is now wearing black underwear, connoting something darker than the earlier sex scene. Their sex is no longer pure and blissful but blemished by Tom's/Joey's deception and violent nature. As Lowenstein writes about this scene: In A History of Violence, the sex scene between Tom/Joey and Edie condenses all the hatred, mistrust, desire, and need that exist between the characters into an ecstatically punishing fuck on the staircase of their home. ...the line between revulsion and arousal, rage and love emanates from the bruising twists and turns of their bodies on the stairs, attracted and repelled in equal measure. 206

Edie engages Joey, both enraged and inflicting painful blows on him, but also embracing this side of him she never knew, somehow accepting it as part of his identity. In the end, she looks her husband in the eye and seems to suddenly lose all respect for him. She pushes him off of her and leaves him lying on the stairs, alone. As mentioned previously, Cronenberg often includes scenes depicting graphic violence and sex. He often conflates the two, and the sex scene on the stairs in this film certainly blurs the line between them. This conflation of sex and violence is found in many other media texts such as music videos and advertisements. It is considered sexy for a man to dominate a woman or to portray grisly images of dead females and call it beauty. For Cronenberg, sex and violence are visceral; they are embodied. "...it takes you someplace that feels primal--where, to follow Freud's model, the basic


9 drives of sex and aggression take over" (Taubin, 26). Both have also been used as tools to achieve the AD, specifically the pornography and video game industries. Sex sells and so does violence. I do not believe Cronenberg is offering the typical critique about the negative influence of sex and violence in mass media. Rather, I feel he is reflecting on the violence that is a very real part of our most intimate, familial encounters. Tom/Joey and Edie seem to have accepted this infiltration to some extent. While the latter sex scene is decidedly more violent, it is also more honest. They respond to each other, fluctuating between aggression and desire as they realize the complexities of their new existence together. "Their bodies speak the darkest ambivalences of their relationship" (Lowenstein, 206). While they never seem to reconcile the nature of their enlightened relationship, they have at least come to a more truthful, open way of communicating, even if it is damaged by Tom's/Joey's violent past. The second sex scene symbolizes the discord that will forever exist between them. "In A History of Violence, a third body haunts the sex between Tom and Edie: Joey, the ghost of a violent past whose presence in this scene reminds us so forcefully that he never truly went away, that he never really became ghostly" (Lowenstein, 207).

Judgment The Stall family represents the achievement of the AD. Cronenberg deliberately hides the truth about the protagonist from everyone, including the audience, until the climactic point of betrayal. Along with the family, the audience refuses to believe such a nice guy could be so vicious. Even after we learn of his deception, we identify with this character who yearns for a simple life, repenting of his treacherous past. We actually condone his violence because we believe he is motivated by a noble force: the protection of his family. Defending the AD once it's been achieved seems to be excusable no matter how one attempts to maintain it. We cheer this double-minded character on and in the end he is rewarded by returning to his family, hoping for a future with them. This dubious hero "wins," so to speak, but at what cost? He is victorious only because he spilled the most blood. To keep his new life, Tom/Joey was forced to face his history of violence by becoming the very thing from which he was


10 running. When we consider the lengths to which individuals will go to achieve the Dream, how far is too far? Does the achievement or maintenance of the AD require violence? The protagonist's betrayal and deception is also symbolic of the empty promise of the AD. The audience is compelled to believe it's only a case of mistaken identity and even after the truth is revealed, we want to believe he is sorry for his violent actions. The AD is a fantasy for many and a reality for very few. Even as we become educated and realize the odds are not in our favor, we still desire that dream of success, money, and fame. At the conclusion of the film, we are left wondering what will become of this family. While the ending is hardly a happily-ever-after, there is hope. His daughter sets him a place at the dinner table, his son passes him a dish, and his wife is at the very least able to look him in the eye. We do not know what will happen to the Stall family, but we can only hope they will pick up the pieces. Similarly, we continue to hope we might be one of the lucky few to be successful in America, the land of opportunity. The Stall family can also be seen as a metaphor of our nation and the illusion of so-called homeland security. "A History of Violence punctures the dream that the United States can somehow revive its shaken confidence at home by lashing out abroad after 9/11--instead, the film presents an 'ideal' American home whose exterior layers peel away to reveal the violence that always lived there, that in fact made the 'ideal' possible" (Lowenstein, 201). Violence invades the home (our borders), so the family (U.S. citizens) must unite in violence to protect it. The dual-identity Tom's/Joey's character suffered can be seen on a societal level in America as well. "In A History of Violence, the 'insanity' of Tom's double life... is part of a societal insanity--the cognitive dissonance involved, for example, in fetishizing the family in order to disavow the power of the corporate state, or in fetishizing traditional small-town America in order to disavow the violence with which the continent was claimed" (Taubin, 27-28). "Cronenberg has said that A History of Violence is the closest he has come to making a film in that quintessential American genre, the Western" (Lowenstein, 202). When we consider the phrases


11 George W. Bush used to describe our tactics in handling Osama Bin Laden, phrases like "smoke him out" and "wanted: dead or alive" come to mind. If our government and international relations follow the plot of a Western, it's no wonder we get a thrill out of systemic violence. Charles Johnston writes, "the addicting power of [violence]--both real and in the media--increases exponentially during times of transition, those times when a familiar story has ceased to [provide] inspiration, and a new one has yet to take its place" (2). When Bin Laden was killed, people cheered in patriotic pride because stories of violent vengeance excite us. The film ruptures illusions of a peaceful home protected from the chaotic violence outside it. Instead, this film's mirage of peace depends on the violence hidden within it, silent but essential. What does the future hold for a family, for a nation, perhaps, that can no longer dwell in the comforting myths of inside and outside? Can it survive in the face of this knowledge? (Lowenstein, 202).

I believe this film could easily have a prequel, depicting Joey's life before he became Tom Stall. I think Cronenberg intentionally excluded this aspect of the story to symbolize the shadowy nature of this country's history. "The United States was born in a spirit of freedom and democracy, yet also with a strong belief in the use of individual and group violence" (Goldstein, 5). We take American History classes in high school, but how well do we really know our own history? We are not told, for instance, that there could be multiple perspectives on the story; that our country's foundation rests not on a single script, but many, often times dialectical histories. Once we face this fact, we will see that America's own history of violence still haunts us today.


12 Works Cited Cronenberg, David. A History of Violence. New Line Home Video, 2006. Film. ---. Eastern Promises. Universal Studios, 2007. Film. Goldstein, Arnold P. Violence in America: Lessons on Understanding the Aggression in Our Lives. 1st ed. Palo Alto, Calif: Davies-Black Pub, 1996. Print. Johnston, Charles. “Addicted to Violence: Has the American Dream Become a Nightmare?” Center for

Media Literacy: Empowerment Through Education. Joos, Jean-Ernest, and Timothy Barnard. “Une Violence Sans Sujet: David Cronenberg Et Michael Haneke / Violence Without a Subject: David Cronenberg and Michael Haneke.” 123 (2006) : 80-119. Print. Lowenstein, Adam. “Promises of Violence: David Cronenberg on Globalized Geopolitics.” Boundary 36.2 (2009) : 199-208. Web. 21 Mar 2011. Messner, Steven F. Crime and the American Dream. 3rd ed. Belmont, CA, USA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2001. Print. Taubin, Amy. “Model Citizens: Nothing Is Quite What It Seems In ‘A History of Violence’ Cronenberg’s Subversive Vision of Homeland Insecurity.” Film Comment Oct 2005 : 24-28. Print.


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