Cronenberg’s violence

In both of director David Cronenberg’s two most recent films, A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007), Viggo Mortenson stars as a man whose identity is revealed via acts of violence. Both films employ dramatic, game-changing plot twists in which the audience suddenly learns that Mortensen’s character is someone quite different than who he’s been claiming to be. But significantly, these twists come well before the end of either film: Cronenberg isn’t using them to bring about resolution, but rather to complicate the storyline and to unsettle the audience’s understanding of the meaning of the violence portrayed in the films. With a shift in context, what at first seemed to be a brave act of self-defense is revealed to be a continuation of a cycle of vicious criminal violence; and what seemed to be a desperate and brutal act of self-preservation is later proven to be part of a risky and heroic operation intended to bring down a gangland empire. Cronenberg blurs motives and justifications in ways that make it exceptionally difficult to judge whether or not any given act of violence might be necessary or ethically justifiable. All you’re really left with by the end of either film is the fact of the violence itself, which Cronenberg puts on screen in all its awful, shocking brutality.  The films seem to argue that violence is irreducible: that whatever the motive, cause, or outcome, there’s no escaping the fact of its horror.

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