While by no means a “food film,” food plays an interesting role in David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (2005), a marvelous film — albeit as you can likely deduce from the title quite, ahem, violent. I’ll focus on two food-centric scenes, which sandwich much of the violent action of the film.
A man with a history of violence, Tom Stall, played by Viggo Mortensen, has a new family-centric, pie-serving, church-going, All-American life, which is astutely symbolized in the business he owns, Stall’s Diner. As discussed in the BBC News article, “Why the Diner is the Ultimate Symbol of America,” a diner proves to be the perfect food-centric foil to the violence of Tom’s past.
The freshly wiped-down surfaces, the democratic side-by-side seating at the counter, the ever-flowing coffee on the warmer, the simple “open” sign on the door, and the “friendly service” tagline on the sign that marks the storefront — all of these features clearly delineate the wholesome character of Tom, the loving Stall family, and the small, supportive community in which they live. The Main Street diner also serves as a poignant setting and a powerful polar opposite for the unexpected bloody acts that occur at the diner counter.
Another supremely wholesome food scene concludes the film. After the violence has concluded, Tom returns to his home, where his wife and two children are seated at the dining table for an All-American, comfort food meal of homemade meatloaf with mashed potatoes, corn, peas, and carrots. Serving these particular foods is meaningful. Imagine how the scene would read differently if the family ate McDonalds, TV dinners, or, say, an “ethnic” dish, such as enchiladas or lo mein. Just as the diner symbolizes a red-white-and-blue-America-on-Main-Street unity and prosperity, so does the homemade meatloaf.
It is also through the language of food that Tom is welcomed back into his family. Rather than get up from the table and hug him, his daughter instead retrieves his place setting, welcoming him not only to the meal, but also back into the family. His son also engages in this unspoken dialogue, as he passes his father the meatloaf. We’re left with an element of painfully perfect ambiguity as the film cuts to black before Tom’s wife makes any meal-related gesture or before the family engages in the communal ritual of eating together.
While we are left to wonder exactly what will happen to the Stall family, the scenes in the diner and round the dinner table eloquently use food-centric devices to characterize this family and the intense, unexpected events that befall them.