Cronenberg’s A History of Violence centers children from its very first scene. As we take in the bloody aftermath of a murder, a young girl escapes from a side room with cries of despair. Just as we take in the death of her mother—and the fact that she heard that death firsthand—the little girl herself is murdered. Cronenberg then deftly transitions from the violent death of this anonymous young girl to Sarah’s screams in the dark. With this tight transition, we are told that this will be a coming-of-age story, a story of how children go from screaming about monsters in the dark to becoming monsters themselves.
This obsession with childhood continues in a History of Violence, most obviously in a scene between Edie and Tom. Edie dons her high school cheerleading outfit in order to seduce her husband—role playing a teenage girl hiding her sexual escapades from her parents. An American obsession with youth is obvious in this scene, and Cronenberg aptly connects this obsession with youth to a female desire to feel sexual and be sexualized. Yet the film makes clear that this desire is much more sinister—it is ultimately an obsession with innocence (both sexual and otherwise). We yearn to return to the simplicity of American childhood in suburbia.
A History of Violence can be framed as a coming-of-age story for Jack specifically. He goes from a young boy cracking witty jokes to one who beats his bullies to a pulp to an outright killer; we watch as Jack losses his innocence and becomes a “man.” In this light, the film’s obsession with childhood is really an obsession with life before violence and monsters. It is an obsession with identity before the turmoil between our inner and outer selves existed.
Cronenberg uses Sarah as a foil to her brother—she is the innocent to counteract his tarnish. The film’s ending solidifies this reading. As Joey returns home after killing upwards of five people, including his own brother, Sarah is the character who welcomes him home and who offers forgiveness. The young child invites him to the table—getting up and creating a place setting for him. Only a child could save the family and truly offer Joey retribution, because only she has the hope in humanity to believe that Joey—in her eyes Tom—is anything but a monster.
Alioff discusses the setting of the film, Millbrook, Indiana, at length, explaining that the film “induces you to believe in its elegiac depiction of Millbrook and its inhabitants.” He touches on the all-American town and the even more all-American diner that Tom runs—an unsophisticated, straightforward life in an unsophisticated, straightforward town. He speaks to a phenomena that many viewers would have felt but may not have understood (me included!), that “even before things go bad in the film, certain scenes imply that Millbrook might be too good to be true.” He argues that Tom and Edie’s relationship comes across as slightly too perfect at times and that their sex scene near the beginning of the film verges on play-acting. He argues that that feeling—the Millbrook is a little too perfect—comes too from the scene where Jack’s bully simply backs off after the crack of a joke. To Alioff, all of these scenes add up to a Millbrook that reads as a version of Our Town.