Sunday, October 09, 2005

My Love Affair With Violence

Two warnings for you on this one. First, it’s very long. Second, if you plan to see the movie A History of Violence, don’t read this because it contains major spoilers, and this is a movie that must be seen without knowing anything for the best experience.

Last night my adoration for Viggo Mortensen drove me to see A History of Violence. Well, my love for Viggo and because the premise looked very interesting. Viggo plays a mild-mannered, small-town family man named Tom Stall. He lives in a tiny Indiana town, owns the local diner, drives a beat-up pickup, and is generally one of the most unassuming kind of guys you’d ever come across. He’s still madly in love and lust with is wife Edie even after twenty years of marriage, his teenage son, Jack, is the victim of bullies but otherwise a good kid, and his six-year old daughter, Sarah, is just cute enough to make you kind of nauseous. Your basic Norman Rockwell version of Americana.

One night, as Tom is closing down the diner, a couple of ruthless murderers show up to rob the diner. As one of them begins to rape the waitress, Tom bolts into action. Within the span of a few heartbeats, he’s killed both criminals and finds himself both a local and national hero, complete with reporters camped out on his front lawn.

Problem is, this media attention brings some strangers into town. A Philadelphia mobster named Carl Fogarty, played by Ed Harris in some pretty scary facial scar makeup, shows up at the diner, twin thugs in tow, claiming that soft-spoken Tom isn’t really Tom but actually a fellow mobster named Joey Cusack. Tom – in this case, Viggo at his finest – is bewildered and dismayed over this obvious case of mistaken identity. Yet Fogarty insists so firmly, the audience can’t help but wonder. Even Tom’s devoted wife, Edie, begins to have her doubts.

Okay, one last SPOILER warning…Really, if you plan to see this movie, don’t read any further. Hie thee to the nearest theater, then come back.

Things get really hairy when Fogarty and his goons arrive at Tom’s home with Jack as incentive for Tom to remember who he really is. Bing, bang, boom later, and there is no longer any doubt as to who Tom was.

This movie affected me on so many levels, I’m still trying to untangle my brain so I can sort it all out.

First, the story forces you to ask the question of whether a man can truly change. Can he decide that he wants to be a good person and then make it so, even if his past is filled with badness? At first you believe the answer to be Yes. For over twenty years Tom had lived the life of a truly good man. It took an act of extreme violence for the part of him he had buried so deeply to surface again, and Tom was clearly disturbed by what he had been forced to do to stop those murders.

Yet, as the movie progressed, it became frightening to not only the audience but to Tom himself how quickly his old demons were able to resurface as necessary time and time again when his old world forced him to own up to his past. Skills he hadn’t practiced in decades came back as easily as riding a bike, and they weren’t the kind of skills that most people put on a resume. It forces one to consider if a propensity for violence is something that, once ingrained into a man’s being, isn’t something that can be left behind. If you have it, you have it for life.

This question – can a flawed man overcome those flaws to become a better man – is a common theme running through fiction. Heck, in romance it’s a staple, and it's usually love that inspires and equips the hero to do so. Even in the case of this movie, which is far from a romance, Tom tells Edie that it wasn’t until he met her that he was truly reborn. Love saved him from himself. I won’t go off into my smug sermon about how those who thumb their noses at our formulaic genre can kiss my ass because even the most non-romance-centric genres fall back on love as the ultimate in redemptive power.

Anyway, what truly has me thinking too much about this movie is what I’ve come to realize is my fascination with violence. Actually, I’m not so much fascinated by it as… is a strong word.

Okay, before I lose every reader I have, let me be clear about something. I do not like exploitive violence. I don’t like violence that is shown simply to titillate or that is gratuitous. I don’t like extreme violence against women that acts as a stand-in for sex. I don’t like gruesome violence shown or described hyper-graphically. I hate – hate, hate, hate – horror and slasher films with the intensity of a thousand white hot suns.

And in real life, I abhor violence. I would as soon hit or hurt someone as I would grow a tail and sprout six foot antlers. The news makes me cringe because of all of the real world violence it shows out there. Every time I hear about more of our troops being killed overseas, I hate real life violence even more.

What I love is fictional violence against the bad guys. I love it when the hero knows how to hurt and maim and kill those who need hurting and maiming and killing.

I have no idea where I stand in pure numbers, but I have to be one of the few women out there who loves a good action flick or war epic because I love watching the good guys kick the bad guys’ asses. I love alpha heroes, and anyone who has ever been to my blog before knows that mil roms (thanks, Steph!) are what I enjoy reading and am attempting to write. These are the sorts of guys and the sorts of stories filled with the good guys abusing the bad guys.

In last night’s movie, watching Tom return to his darker self and dispatch the mafia dudes with cold, calculated precision gave me thrills. I admired that every move he made had the right effect. He worked on automatic pilot, and regardless of the fact that it was the movies and every fight scene choreographed out the ying yang, I lost myself in the illusion that someone could be such a killing machine.

So, confession made. Bigger picture. Why am I the way that I am?

I blame Darwinism. It makes the most sense. Actually, the only sense. I’m a woman, and eons ago, my kind had to rely on a male to keep me and mine safe and well fed. Of course I would choose the male that could best slay the beasties and evildoers, so anyone who displayed prowess in the field of fighting and a-killin’ would be welcome in my cave.

While my brain is one of those kind that did evolve over the years, I guess my animal instincts didn’t keep pace. Intellectually I know that violence is a bad thing. But my heart can’t help but beat a little faster when the hero starts showing his slaying skills. A guy who knows how to efficiently – indeed, gracefully – dispatch of mine enemies climbs to the top of the pile when it comes time to perpetuate his line.

I am in control of my hormones enough to differentiate between defensive violence and offensive violence. Heroes work in the former, villains in the latter. Some heroes walk a thin line – Tom walked that line – at which point I label them anti-heroes (see prior entry). Violence in the name of protecting your family or country is honorable. Violence in the name of advancing your self-interests is despicable.

I suppose all of this comes down to a matter of preference. I’m a fan of rescue scenarios. Normally one is only rescued from some sort of danger, and inherent in danger is some threat of violence. Where one goes, the other is usually following. Thus it makes sense that I enjoy fictional, defensive violence because someone is getting rescued, and if the rescuer is good at his job, I’m a happy camper.

So, I find a guy with the ability to dispatch justice of the lethal persuasion pretty hot. My consolation is that I’m not alone. Even in the movie that opened up this introspective can of worms, wife Edie finds herself both appalled by and attracted to this other, more violent man she’s just discovered she’s married to. After she’s learned the truth, she wants not a whole lot to do with Tom. He figures a little physical affection will remind her what they shared in the past, but as she rejects him, things turn a little…well, violent. And it is clear by Edie’s reaction that in some perverse way, this turns her on. They have sex that is definitely consensual but certainly not loving and tender.

There is something so appealing and a very big turn on at the idea of controlling a being capable of killing a man with his bare hands. Something dangerous about trusting and surrendering to him. Edie realizes this, and I don’t think she’s too happy to know this about herself.

Too, that whole Love Tames the Savage Beast theme comes into play. Yes, this man is a killer. But love turns him into a tender, gentle lover. Interesting.

Well, I warned you this was long and probably contained far too much true confession. Even so, if you are so inclined for a movie that’ll make you think, I highly recommend A History of Violence. It certainly doesn't glorify violence, but it does make you think about it in a new way.

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