Sunday, June 17, 2012

Review: A History of Violence

So I've decided to change up how I do movie reviews on this blog, and I think over time I may make a shift to focusing more on them than other types of entries. Once I go through all the archived entries I have saved up I think I'm mainly going to focus on life, music, and movie reviews. I know that may be a little boring for most people, but after a long theoretical debate with my brother over the theories and psychology of LOST as a television series, I realized that I really miss writing about various forms of pop culture in a more scholarly way. God that makes me such a nerd, but I was an English minor in college, and I actually ENJOYED writing papers and reading and analyzing. This is also partially part of the reason why I love psychology so much. Even though we are trained to help people, part of helping people is analyzing them like they are a puzzle. In the last 6 months the posts I have most enjoyed putting up were the ones about movies in which I approached them from a psychological perspective. One of the last times I did that I even devoted half of the entry to waxing about this love of mine. So I think I'd rather just shut up about this and do it.

Most recently I watched A History of Violence staring Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello, a thriller about a man who once was a mob enforcer and fled that life in order to start a new one. Mortensen plays Tom, the man formerly known as Joey, who has managed to, despite previously being quite a sick bastard, find love, start a family, and live a quiet existence in rural America. By all accounts he is a good family man. Steadfast, loving, reliable. Early in the movie Edie, Tom's wife played by Bello, tells Tom that he is the best man she has ever known. The viewer is painted a picture of Tom as essentially perfect.

However, juxtaposed with these early scenes of blissful family life is the brief tale of two men with no scruples. Rather than pay their bill at a small highway-wise motel they kill everyone including a small child. No remorse at the sight of all the blood, just another day at the office.

When the two stories meet, the real baddies make a move against a waitress at the diner where Tom works and he snaps into action, killing them and saving the day. Unfortunately for him his heroics garner him national media attention and the life he left behind catches up with him. It is only then that we learn that Tom is not as innocent and pure as he is made out to be. Once a maniac as heartless as the men from earlier in the movie, he took out a man's eye with barbed wire. It makes you wonder what kind of sicko would do that (can you imagine how close you'd have to be to the person's face to do that?). Surely our Tom is not that kind of a sicko, and his wife initially agrees. But when she sees Tom snap into action after their son's life is threatened she realizes that he truly is, Joey, the ruthless killer the mob claims he is.

It was about this point in the movie that the following exchange takes place:

Edie: What do you have multiple personalities or something?
Tom: I thought he was dead. I killed him in the desert years ago.

And I my mind immediately started churning up ideas. According to Edie, Tom is truly two different people; the one she loves, the best man she's ever met, and then a whack job that she is completely disgusted by. She has a hard time coming to terms with the fact that they are the same man and that this man can be both good and bad. Similarly to Masterson's views on pathological personality disorders, she expects her significant other to be completely perfect when she he is not she cannot cope with this idea. While I understand how betrayed she must feel, it is also amazing to me how she can change her mind so easily. Tom did nothing to her and has proven to be like a born again knight in shining armor. Thankfully, Edie is not pathological like Masterson's descriptons of personality disorders and instead does her best to come to terms with her husband's past life (although we are never sure if she is truly able to do that). In a poignant scene, when she is most disgusted with him, she is turned on at the same time and the two have pretty rough sex. Yet while this is happening shades of the real Tom comes through as he strokes his wife's face tenderly. Clearly, even though there is a dark side to him, it's not the only part.

Then we start to see shades of his violent behavior peek its head out in other places. Tom's son, who earlier in the movie proved to be excellent at talking his way out of precarious situation with a bully, decides that if his father can be tough and manly so can he. His switch is flipped, just like we see at the diner, and he becomes a violent kid, beating the crap out of his tormenters. It leads the viewer to wonder if what we're seeing is hereditary. Tom has spent the last several years cultivating his personality to be completely different than what he once was. He is calm, soft spoken, and tender. And despite this, his son, who seemed to be the same way, shows aspects of his violent side when pushed. Nature versus nurture comes to mind. And is it possible to nurture out the nature when you decide you don't like the cards you're dealt.

But I think the bigger question of this movie is more about the sides of ourselves that we show others. Don't we all have parts of ourselves that we are not proud of? That we try to hide from people we love? Regardless of how gruesome it actually is or not, we all expect others to act like Edie did when Tom finally admitted the truth (so disgusted that she immediately vomited in the nearest toilet).

Does that mean we all have some kind of multiple personalities? According to social theory yes. According to the DSM-IV-TR, no. To truly have a multiple personality disorder (or Dissociative Identity Disorder) the DSM states you must meet the following criteria:

A. The presence of two or more distinct identities or personality states (each with its own relatively enduring pattern of perceiving, relating to, and thinking about the environment and self).
B. At least two of these identities or personality states recurrently take control of the person's behavior.
C. Inability to recall important personal information that is too extensive to be explained by ordinary forgetfulness.
D. The disturbance is not due to the direct physiological effects of a Alcohol Intoxication or a general medical condition (e.g., complex partial seizures). Note: In children, the symptoms are not attributable to imaginary playmates or other fantasy play.

It's pretty clear Tom (and the majority of society) does not fit this description.

Meanwhile social theory states that we all have different faces that we put on to the world. It's pretty clear that who we are on a Saturday night at the club is not the same person at brunch the next day with Grandma. So which part is our true selves? In reality we are all of those personalities. And yes, some are innate while others are crafted and cultivated through life's experiences and our decision to change. At some point in life we all say "wow, I do not like the person I am right now. Time to change." And then we are faced with the fear of someone finding out just what kind of person we used to be.

Much like the song Young Folks by Peter Bjorn and John, we all hope for a happy ending.

If I told you things I did before, told you how I used to be
Would you go along with someone like me
If you knew my story word for word, had all of my history
Would you go along with someone like me

I did before and had my share, it didn't lead nowhere

I would go along with someone like you
It doesn't matter what you did, who you were hanging with
We could stick around and see this night through

Do Tom and Edie have a happy ending? That's left up to interpretation. At one point very early in the movie Tom says to Edie, "I can tell you still love me, I can see it in your eyes." But in the last scene we're left with the two silently staring across the dinner table. Tom is exhausted and traumatized at having to be his past self, while Edie is emotionally exhausted from wrestling with the choice ahead of her. What does the look they give each other mean? Love? Disgust? Fear? Hope? Perhaps all of the above.

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