During my teen years, I read John Steinbeck's East of Eden. Steinbeck used themes from the book of Genesis in the Bible to flesh out this uniquely American story. It tells the story of a young woman, Cathy, who was a "monster." She killed and harmed with no compunction. Her twin sons, Aaron and Caleb (nicknamed Cal) dealt with the legacy of such a mother. Cal could feel the violence, the monstrosity, inside him and had to choose which way he would live his life. This choice is understood as Timshel - the Jewish word for you may choose or you may choose not.
The new movie, A History of Violence, starring Viggo Mortenson, deals with this same theme. Are there truly monsters in our world? The movie does not deal with how one becomes a "monster," but deals with Timshel - the choice. The main character is Tom Stall, a small-town family man whose family is almost too perfect, too loving. The family's small, cozy home is a haven which is their foundation in navigating the world around them. It's hard to imagine the parents ever raising their voice. I found myself wishing I could be as calm a presence as the mother (or look that good in a cheerleading outfit, for that matter!).
The idyllic family's life is shattered when two monsters step into Tom's diner. Tom becomes a hero by revealing a violent side that no one can quite believe. This attention brings Philadelphia mobsters to small town Indiana, by the belief that Tom is a former killer named Johnny.
The story unravels as we discover more of who Tom truly is, and how this coming to terms with oneself impacts the family around him. As Tom accepts more of the violence inside him, his family is disrupted. His family life mirrors the violence within each person.
The movie is very simply done. It is also quite violent and graphic - more than I would normally want to see. Yet, it deals with such important topics for us today. Are there truly monsters in our world, ones incapable of reform? Can one truly choose life over death, peace over violence? Does the end mean of violence justify it (as in committing a violent act to save an innocent)? Can any act be forgiven? How do we live as a people of forgiveness, forgiving others and ourselves?
The end of the movie reminds me of the conclusion of Places in the Heart. It ends with a eucharistic table - there is always room at the table. No matter who we are, what choices we have made, the table is set for us. We have a place. There is redemption.
The movie does not provide all the answers. I don't think it is meant to do so - yet, it gives us a good place for asking those important questions and struggling with the answers and meaning in our violent society today.