I feel this way about A History of Violence.
If you just want to watch an action movie, go somewhere else. If you think you’re ready for some serious psychological work, sit with me, we’ll watch this movie together.
This analysis is going to be full of spoilers IF you think of spoilers as revealing plot points. If you think of this movie more as “what does it do to your psyche?” rather than “what’s the story about?” then these aren’t spoilers, they’re preparations.
Let’s Get Into It...:
I remember reading a newspaper article that asserted that the major issue in the movie was whether or not violence leaves lasting effects on people who engage in it.
This question seems to have such an obvious answer that it would be foolish to think that the movie only deals with this.
This movie is NOT about violence. There might be some movies that examine the effects of violence but this is not one of them. A History of Violence uses violence as a setting to address larger psychological issues. Each character has some pretty significant inner crap going on, and guess what, you probably do too.
Do you feel unsettled after watching this movie?
Don’t blame it on the violence. Something probably stuck a chord deep within your heart and you might want to talk about it with someone.
First I’ll talk about the issues generally, then I’ll talk about how each character in the family is affected.
All humans have deep issues hidden in their hearts. We all have dark secrets we do not tell anyone else. Consider:
What is the worst thing you’ve ever done or experienced?
What are you most ashamed of?
Is it the same answer, why or why not?
Have you told anyone about that?
Have you told anyone the emotions that are connected to that event?
Have you told someone something you were ashamed of but not told why you were ashamed?
Have you told but said it in a way that made light of the situation, that masked it?
Even those we love and are most open with may not know the reasons behind the things they see us do. Along with darkness, that is often so sick and black that it threatens to consume us with shame, we have an amazing ability to compartmentalize and not think about it. Some people have secrets from themselves as well as others because they have avoided the issues of their hidden heart for so long. We hide who we are and create false selves so that people will respond favorably to us.
Humans naturally doubt that anyone can handle their bad (the darkness inside their hearts). We think that people will stand up and point at us when we act like ourselves. We think that those we love will not love us when they find out that we are tempted in repulsive ways. We fear being exposed, being found out. We talk too much to fill up the space so people will not notice how awkward we are. We don’t trust the people who love us the most to continue to love us if ALL were revealed.
Sometimes, of course, what we hide becomes unhidden. A professor in my MA program called this “leaking”. We hide so much stuff that it bottles up and overflows. It leaks out. Maybe our pride makes us do something stupid in public. We stub our toe and let out an inordinate amount of anger. We are impatient and rude to the person who loves us the most, and he/she has no idea why.
When this happens we have to deal with it and we can either talk it through or make excuses.
Differences and darkness are brought into the light of relationship. In a marriage, little by little one gets to know his or her spouse as conflicts bring up more issues. Hopefully, in good marriages, the truth is not avoided or shamed, but loved as part of the reality of the person.
Perhaps someone is in counseling, or just meditative thoughts, and he discovers something about himself. At that moment he has one issue to bring into the scope of the reality about himself. Facing the reality of one’s self is sometimes difficult and painful. We’re so used to hiding that even looking at all of our strategies for hiding is a shameful experience. It is a difficult thing to sit down with a parent, or friend, or spouse, or even a priest and verbally confess that you are not the person you have been pretending to be.
The good news is that, sometimes, after such a confrontation there is rest to be found. It is exhausting to constantly keep up these strategies. In a relationship with others, whether we are accepted or not, we know there is nothing left to do. Once the truth of ourselves is revealed we can only sit back and let the other person respond. If they respond with love, we can step into the glorious knowledge that we did not need to hide in the first place.
And that is what A History of Violence is about.
It’s about hiding. It’s about leaking. It’s about “soul-work”.
It’s about love.
The Secret and the Characters:
Obviously Viggo’s character has a secret in this movie that he is hiding from everyone. The hiding of it is affecting everyone (even himself) in ways that he is not even aware. I’d argue that he’s even hiding it from himself; how often does he think about his past on a daily basis? Probably not much. Not until something happens that brings it to the forefront of his consciousness
Sarah Stall / Daughter
Sarah is a minor character in the family; she isn’t given much depth. But even she is affected by her father’s hiding.
The first significant portion of dialogue in the movie is the conversation between the family members in the daughter’s bed. The preceding scenes which open the movie serve only to introduce the bad-guy characters and would have been just as effective without dialogue, the dialogue is irrelevant to the story and even to their story arc. Sarah Stall wakes up after having a bad dream and tells her father that there were “monsters”. Her dream and her fears are juxtaposed with the opening scene of two bad men who had killed several people in a hotel, including one young child. It seems that there are, in fact, monsters though not the kind she was dreaming about. Her father’s response to her fears is to tell her that there are no such thing as monsters.
But there are monsters, and in many ways Tom thinks he is one.
Tom can’t be honest with his young daughter. The movie opens with a father lying to a child. His hidden heart is affecting his family.
Jack Stall / The Son
A parent’s job, or part of it at least, is to be a mirror for their children. This term is used with different connotations in different contexts so let me explain briefly what I mean. I do not mean that children will mimic what parents do (though that probably happens quite a bit). I mean that the parent is there to wisely see and understand the heart of the child then reflect that truth back to the child. A very simple example of this is when a parent helps a young child figure out why he’s grumpy (i.e. “are you hungry? Tired? Frustrated that I asked you to come inside? That’s ok let’s rest for a bit and then play again”). Four year olds don’t want to admit that they’re tired, but they do get tired. Parents should be there to safely open a child’s heart and guide him into self-knowledge and growth. This is more complicated, and perhaps more important, as the child grows through adolescence. It is vital for a young girl (or boy) dealing with middle school to have a wise parent help her identify and manage emotions and other issues.
The problem in History of Violence is that Tom can’t do that for his son, Jack, because he’s stunted his own self-realization. He can’t mirror truth for his son because he’s presenting a false self, a distorted mirror.
Jack starts out as an object of ridicule for the tough, popular kid. He chiefly uses humor, sarcasm, and cynicism in his interactions with people throughout his day. Later, after a more true version of his father is revealed, Jack is again confronted by the local bully. This time, he fights, and ends up severely hurting the bully. I don’t think the movie is necessarily trying to say that violence is better than humor to handle high school bullies. I do want to notice the kind of child Tom is shown to have raised. Tom was a man who had strength but was concealing it because of shame. He had physical power, raw masculinity, but he hid it deep within. Therefore, he raised a son who was unaware of his own masculinity. Once Jack felt like there was masculinity in his family, and therefore in him, he let his own out. He let it out in an unhealthy chaotic manner, because he didn’t know how to deal with his own strength.
If Tom had been a better father he would have perceived power in his son, called it out, and helped him control and direct it.
He was unable to see power in his son, because he was hiding the power in himself.
Edie Stall / The Wife
There are two sex scenes in A History of Violence. The first is before the revelation of Tom’s past, the second is after. Rather than being the main part of a relationship, sex is often an indicator of the state of the rest of the relationship. The sex between the husband and wife in this movie reflects their relationship. The first instance is happy and gentle, and involves pretending. It is initiated by Edie. This is the state of their relationship at the time. They were the perfect American couple, but they were faking. A surface level viewing may lead to the conclusion that Edie loved Tom before his true self was revealed, then she didn’t. However, this misses the point. Edie didn’t love Tom at the beginning of the movie because that would be logically impossible. Tom wasn’t real. She certainly thought she loved someone, but the person she thought she loved was a façade, a phantasm. This is the irony of the first sex scene: Edie is pretending to be a cheerleader, but Joey is pretending to be Tom.
The second instance is initiated by Tom after a bit of an argument. It is probable that as a married couple they have had previous arguments with different outcomes. As they argue this time Tom pins his wife against the wall by her throat. Their sexual encounter follows this; it is passionate and violent, but it is real. She is encountering the hidden-ness of her husband, a part of him she has never encountered before.
And at the end of the movie… does she love her husband? Maybe.
I’m optimistic about it, I’d say she’s working on loving him. But the difference is that, for the first time, she has a fair chance at loving him.
Tom wouldn’t let his wife love him because he had NEVER showed his wife who he really was.
Tom Stall / You
In A History of Violence Tom has his whole dark hidden heart ripped out into the open. His hidden heart is thrust out in public and given a name, that name is Joey Cusack. Tom had strategies in place to carefully conceal the truth about himself. When his true self comes out through the cracks in his façade he tries new strategies, he scrambles. Tom is full of fear, not fear of the actual people who are after him, but fear that he will be found out, fear that everyone will see who he really is. But it’s too late, the walls crumble down. In the real world healing is usually a drawn out process involving therapy. In this movie Tom’s wife, Edie, saw his darkness practically spilling out uncontrollably all at once. Edie and Tom have to deal with it in the short span of the movie. Tom has no choice but to confess to his wife. He has no choice but to hope for the acceptance of his son.
It’s beautiful that even as his wife sees the truth about him, he sees a more complete picture of her. He never would have seen certain aspects of her if his true self had not brought them out. In hiding who he really was he had been limiting who she was.
Tom has to tell his wife and then he has to deal with his hidden heart. In the hospital scene he tells Edie that he had gone to the desert and “killed Joey”. But he hadn’t, not really. He had buried his past, but he hadn’t killed it. If it was truly dead and over he wouldn’t have been afraid that anyone would know about it. What follows is an amazing metaphor for dealing with the hidden heart. Tom takes a long journey to the source of the issues. He confronts his fears and his shame. He tries to make it right, he deals with the issues. In the context of the movie he’s using violence to face this darkness in his past. Sometimes it is a “violent” process, facing one’s past.
Then he comes back home to his family without any more pretense. He can only hope that his family loves him as he is.
Can those around Tom handle his bad? Can they handle the reality that Joey is a part of Tom or do they want to live in fantasy and thus not have the real man? How would you react if you suddenly found out all the deep dark secrets of someone you loved? How would you react if all your deep dark secrets were discovered?
These are the questions of the movie.
I saw A History of Violence twice in the theater. The second time was with a friend who was also a student in my MA program.
After we exited the theater he said, “You’re not hiding that much, though.”
I’ve never killed anyone, but at the time that this movie came out I was hiding quite a bit. I had walls up hiding who I really was from those around me, especially my wife. I was so afraid that she couldn’t handle my bad that I didn’t give her a chance to love the real me.
I had to take a journey into my darkness.
I had to bring it into the light.
I had to face my fears.
I had to kill my darkness (or make a valiant attempt).
I had to trust the people around me.
I had to let others love the real me.
Sometimes I wish it had been as easy and dramatic as shooting a few bad guys.
This movie didn’t make me change, but it affected me deeply because I saw it in the midst of this journey that it illustrates so truly, so beautifully: the journey to true love.
On a Personal Note:
The great truth of Christianity is that God can handle our bad. God only loves who you really are. He does not love the false you that you show everyone. God loves you deep in the core of who you are, in the caverns of your soul that you don’t even know exist. The fear you have about being “found out” is irrelevant with God, he already knows that you are worse than you suspect you are.
And he already loves you there, in that dark place.