December 8, 2005
Our History of Violence
-- James K. A. Smith
David Cronenberg's most recent film, A History of Violence, interrogates violence on a number of levels and includes various modes of disturbance -- from sadomasochistic eroticism to violence against children, along with key scenes involving bodily fluids and injured flesh. Cronenberg is clearly out to de-aestheticize the violence that is a staple of Hollywood and, increasingly, our cultural practices. He is trying to wake us up to what we might call, loosely paraphrasing Hannah Arendt, the banality of violence.
But the final sequence of the film is highly ambiguous, spurring viewers to ask what Cronenberg is after (and here I'll issue a spoiler alert). The closing scenes, set in the city of brotherly love, invite, even demand, theological reflection. They are launched by a Cain-and-Abel encounter between brothers Joey Cusak (Viggo Mortensen) and Richie Cusak (William Hurt), invoking the "first violence" of Genesis 4. As Richie peers up the barrel of Joey's pistol, he pleads, "Jesus, Joey." Joey responds with a bullet to Richie's forehead. Looking over his brother's body, he mutters under his breath, shaking his head: "Jesus, Richie." We can't be sure whether these invocations are blasphemies or prayers. The scene that follows, however, invites the latter interpretation.
We cut to Joey at the lake behind Richie's mansion, peeling off his blood-stained clothes (casting off the "old man") and washing himself in the baptismal waters of the lake. He then makes the long trip back from Philadelphia to his (now disrupted) ho-hum farmhouse in rural Indiana. Walking into his house, his family (who know his history of violence) is quietly eating at the table. In silence, the youngest daughter prepares a place for him, inviting him to join the meal. His son, Jack, who was enraged by his father's history of violence, passes him the meatloaf as an extension of hospitality, and his wife, Edie, simply looks at him through tears ... and the celluloid goes dark. The film seems to end with eucharistic hospitality, the history of violence forgiven as Joey is welcomed to the table.
But I think that such a reading is taking Cronenberg's bait. In other words, I think that Cronenberg is playing with us here, inviting us to see redemption where there is none. The utter ambiguity of the final scenes—including remarkably illegible expressions on the face of Tom and Edie—invites a quite different reading, one that is much more cynical.
On this reading, Cronenberg is slyly inviting us to see our implication in violence, our own history of violence. (The portrayal of sex in the film compels us into being erotically charged by violence, which is exactly what Hollywood—and Fox News—lives off of.) Following John Milbank, who finds original and inescapable violence at the heart of pagan myths, this alternative interpretation of the movie reveals a decidedly un-Christian, and perhaps even "pagan," reality: The first violence of Cain and Abel is a necessary violence, replayed over and over again, without end and without the possibility of escape from the cycle.
Joey's washing in the lake is thus not a redemptive cleansing, but more a matter of "washing one's hands"—the wistful illusion of being done with violence, when in fact it is violence that nourishes all our practices and privileges. And his silent welcome to the table at home is not a matter of eucharistic hospitality and forgiveness, but rather the silent complacency that wants to act as if we weren't implicated, as if the violence never happened, as if we can just get on with our lives and not talk about it. At the heart of this reading is a heightened sense of the banality of violence—that the pristine peace of every Mayberry is built upon a history of violence.
This second reading seems especially appropriate given recent revelations about the submerged violence that is quietly accepted as necessary for our national "security." After all, isn't the price of sitting at the table of American security and prosperity the quiet acceptance of Abu Ghraib? Who are we to be aghast at the Cusak family's complicity when we live under the regime of an Attorney General who has defended the President's right to authorize practices that clearly violate the Geneva Conventions? Aren't all of our dinner tables complicit with a system under which dozens have "disappeared" by "extraordinary rendition" to countries where no one is watching?
These questions suggest that the real theological import of A History of Violence will only be found in refusing the easy, almost trite, identification of Christian symbols. In other words, we should read Cronenberg's film not as a Christian tragedy, but as a pagan drama revealing how we are implicated in our own histories of violence.
References and for Further Reading:
For background on American participation in torture, see William Pfaff, "What We've Lost: George W. Bush and the Price of Torture," Harper's (November 2005).
James K. A. Smith is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His next book, Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church, will appear next spring from Baker Academic.