Quick Thoughts: A History Of Violence
A forgotten past barges its way into a small town.
A History Of Violence is a great study in the antithetical, yet similar, nature of both the western and the gangster picture. The influence of both the classic western and gangster films is very apparent in the two halves of this film. In the first half we see, both through setting and theme, the western side of this movie. The middle-American locale with a close community is archetypal of westerns. Added to this we have themes of family, self-sovereignty and simplicity. All of these link the opening of the film to westerns such as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and High Noon. The High Noon influence is key as its acts as the catalyst of the film; the mobsters from Philadelphia showing up. This mimics the ‘big trouble coming to a little town’ seen in High Noon and many other westerns. With added themes of a past coming back to haunt a man and rattle his family, we see the true strength of the connection between both A History Of Violence and High Noon. As the narratives moves along, we get into the latter half of the film and the ‘gangster film’ side of things. Here we see the influence of films such as Public Enemy and Scarface. This obviously encompasses the grimy city aesthetic and themes of violence. But, with the end of the film, we see the true essence of the gangster film coming to fruition. With themes of familial betrayal and loyalty, we’re steeped in the fabrics of The Godfather, On The Water Front, Goodfellas, The 25th Hour and Carlito’s Way. The crux of all of these films lies in tragedy meeting themes of family and violence. However, it cannot be forgotten that there is powerful classical western base to this film. This re-introduces the essence of films such as The Searchers, Unforgiven, Once Upon A Time In America and, of course, High Noon. What this coalesces into is the internal conflicts of Tom/Joey. Whereas the archetypal gangster faces ruin and tragedy having tried to save his family and preserve his way of life, the archetypal white hat cowboy faces noble futility, an open door to walk out of and away from family. This is the subtextual poignancy of the climax to this film; the question it asks as Tom/Joey sits down at his dinner table. Can he reassure the facade of the white hat cowboy? Will this cause him to walk away from family? Will it help him preserve it? Or, will he embrace Joey, his gangster archetype? Will that work in his favour? Will this destroy his family, result in tragedy?
These are the great questions asked by A History Of Violence, ones best understood through not just our main character’s dichotomous identities as both Tom and Joey, but also the film’s dichotomous identities as both a western and gangster film.
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