I finally saw A History of Violence. It's the best movie I've seen in ages. I had been told the movie poses the problem of conversion: can one really be born again? I'm interested in conversion and will think about that, but to me this was not a key feature of the film at all. Rather, I see A History of Violence as a fantasy, or some interconnecting fantasies, of what it is to be a man, fantasies, in other words, of the father. And, most important: whose fantasies? K-punk is right to dismiss readings that see Tom (the suburban/rural/exurban father) as the fantasy of Joey (the Philadelphia mob killer) or Joey as the fantasy of Tom. But, in rejecting this view he far too quickly rejects fantasy altogether. In my view, the film should be read as fantasy--the fantasy of the son (who, by the way, is completely missing from K-punk's account of the film). I read the film, then, as the son's fantasy of violence underlying the passive, ordinary goodness of his father.
The son is in high school, moving from being a child to becoming a man. When we first see him he is part of a completely fantastic image of the perfect family: the teenage son concerned about his little sister's bad dream. The next morning, we see the family at breakfast. The son resists allowing his father to pour him some cereal; he can do it himself. The son is anxious about sports, a key arena for suburban masculinity. The father knows sports and tells the son what to do. In the baseball scene, the son catches the ball. He feels a sense of accomplishment. He can do it, like a real man. But, once he can perform like a man, he faces other would-be or becoming men: the bully who begins to harass him in the locker room, calling him names, demanding that he fight. In what seems to be a perfect Zizekian example of shooting oneself in the foot, taking the system at its word, the son immediately agrees, yes, he is a pussy, a faggot, all sorts of names, and then wouldn't it be a pathetic overkill for the bully to beat him up? What's the point? He's already conceded? To beat up someone unwilling to fight is no great achievement. The audience of boys is delighted, laughing, agreeing. And, the bully then looks like the moronic bully he is. The son then sinks down into the locker.
On the one hand, we can read this sinking down as a sign of the son's
complete subjective destitution. He has completely denied himself as a
man, given up the very masculinity he earned by catching the ball. On
the other hand, his facility with language is so adept, so perfect, so
witty and able, that he seems perfectly integrated into the Symbolic,
in a way, without remainder: he controls language; he is a man. This
perfect integration, finding the right word and controlling its
effects, is too perfect: it, too, is a fantasy. (Likewise, the sex
scene between his parents that follows soon thereafter, is fantastic,
not simply because it stages a fantasy, a role playing which well
figures the role playing of the father, Tom/Joey, but because it stages
a high school fantasy: sex with a cheerleader, a sexually experienced
cheerleader delighted to go into sixty-nine.) At any rate, the point
here is that the initial scene of the son in the locker room suggests
the perfect separation of language and violence, of the good man fully
in control of language and the violent brute, that is replicated in the
story of the father, in Tom/Joey.
When the father is faced with violence, when the bad guys come to
his cafe, he kills them--in perfect comic book style. As if to
accentuate the imaginary dimension of this violence, we see the father
as a media image--on television, in the papers, an object for the media
imagination of a hero. Rather than simply 'acting' (doing what one
must, being acted through), these media images remind us of the fantasy
of luck, contingency, and superhuman strength: I just found myself,
unarmed, killing two armed bad guys! This superhero is the son's
fantasy of a father, of what it is to be a man; not just to use words
to confront violence, but to suppress it, overcome it, with one's own
And this creates a problem: the son of course cannot live with the fantasy of the father as a superhero. It's too much. The bully at school taunts him: what would his hero dad think of his girly son? Wouldn't he be ashamed? Thus, the image of the father that the son sought as a way to escape the deadlock of perfect integration into the symbolic combined with subjective destitution (the two sides of his fantasy response to the bully in the locker room) becomes unbearable. To escape, the son himself acts out, lashing out at the bully in precisely the same comic book style as his father had killed the bad guys in the restaurant: he takes out 2 guys at once, demonstrating heretofore unimaginable superhuman abilities. Faced with the potential scorn of father-hero, the son himself embraces violence, now becoming himself a hero.
But, this won't work. It isn't enough. The father rejects this solution: violence is not the answer; the son's violence was excessive, he put one of the bullies into the hospital. What, then, to do with the excessive violence? Split the father into the good father of the symbolic and the obscene father of the mob, of underworld violence. Only will this split enable the son to grapple with his own dilemmas of becoming a man. Don't deny the violence, recognize that it is there, underneath the good world. The obscene mob-father, then, is the fantastic solution to the unbearable suffocating presence of the good father and the way that this father figures into the son's struggle to become a man. Thus, the son saves his father's life, killing for him, immediately after he hears his father acknowledge that he is Joey. Rather than violence suppressed and unacknowledged, violence is now explicit and acknowledged, an unavoidable, unerasable part of masculinity.
(In the interlocking fantasy of the wife, the acknowledgement of the heretofore repressed violence takes a different form; yes, the symbolic order collapses--what are their names? what is her name? who are they in the family now that their name is not their name, now that the paternal function has broken down?--but, in compensation she gets great sex with a mob killer; the sex scene on the stairs, one that plays like a rape fantasy, should thus be seen as correlative to the cheerleader fantasy in the beginning. The wife, a lawyer, enacts the fantasy of sex outside the law, obscene sex with a violent criminal. One might also consider whether this fantastic scene is also the son's fantasy of the violent sexual knowledge/experience of the obscene father of enjoyment).
The fantasy of the obscene father is elaborated in a fantastic scene with William Hurt as Joey's brother. The scene is played for all its comic book effects--it's very funny, clearly fantastic, and completely implausible: again, the violence is fantastic, like some of the best martial arts films. Hurt's character is also shocked at the implausibility of Joey's escape--how could his men screw this up so badly?
At the end, Joey returns. And, there is an empty place for him, the place he left empty but can now reoccupy. There is no dialogue, just a complete reproduction of the structure: the daughter gets his plate, fork, and knife (his place setting), the son passes him the meatloaf. The structure of the family is restored, again, perfect, perfect balance, perfect meal, perfect suffocating symmetry. Only now we know the fantasy of violence that sustains it.