A few weeks ago my son and I had an evening alone at home alone (yes, he is adult), and rented A History of Violence from the local video hut. It was indeed violent, but I found myself taken by it in a way that usual violent movies (of the car chase and "bang-bang-you're dead" variety) do not touch me. I no longer find violence as entertaining as I once did. Perhaps, at seventy, this is a sign of maturity. But entertaining or not, it can still be diverting if you are tired and have an irresponsible evening to spend.
I certainly did not expect to the film to linger in my mind as it has, nor for me to name it one of my favorite things.
A History of Violence is not a documentary. It is a family drama about a few people with a history of violence, both in the past and in the projected future. The histories of violence are personal. The main character is a middle-aged, churchgoing, small-town businessman in Indiana, played by Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings ) who, to prevent rape and murder in his establishment, becomes horribly, efficiently violent in preventing the crimes by disabling and killing in turn the two bad guys who had thought his little coffee shop an easy mark.
Of course he becomes a hero in his community, but he brushes off journalists who try to interview him with "Anybody would have done it."
This is a challengeable thesis, obviously. Many would have tried to do it, and died trying because they would not have known how. He did it, and it looked as though he knew how to do it.
The movie answers the question of how he knew, the same question that Jason Bourne asks himself in The Bourne Identity. On that level A History of Violence is a superb action thriller, more bang-bang than car chase; The Bourne Identity is both. But on the level that makes me think about the movie, it asks more questions than it answers.
Does even justifiable violence solve more problems than it creates?
Is the wholesale slaughter of bad guys by Jimmy Stewart in Destry Rides Again and by Alan Ladd in Shane as justifiable as their plots seem to indicate?
Did nineteen years of Gunsmoke taint our moral perspective?
Is the example of violence more compelling than the example of patience and conciliation, which the teen-age son of the hero emulates before his father's counterattack in the coffee shop, but not afterward?
How many of us are waiting for either the opportunity or permission to become effectively violent?
Is Dirty Harry's famous challenge, 'Go on punk, make my day', meaning "Try to kill me so I can kill you", perceived as a moral response or as the sign of a personality saturated and formed by violence?
These are just a few of the questions raised by the movie. They have been kept alive by the events of recent weeks. Right now, Israel has blockaded Lebanon, violence being its Johnny One-note response to every offense against it. That, coupled with North Korea, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and the terrorist attack in India, suggests what Christian moralists have always known: not only do individuals, clans, gangs, and nations have histories of violence; so does the human race—ever since Cain rose up and slew his brother.