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History of Violence, A

New Line // R // February 10, 2009
List Price: $28.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted February 21, 2009 | E-mail the Author
"Yeah? Why don't you ask 'Tom' about his older brother Ritchie? Ask 'Tom' how he tried to rip my eye out with barbed wire, and ask him, Edie, how come he's so good at killing people."

At a
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glance, at least, there's nothing particularly remarkable about Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen). He runs a small diner in the sleepy little town of Milbrook, Indiana, and after he locks up for the night, he drives his rickety pickup truck to a modest home on an old farm with his wife Edie (Maria Bello) and two children. It's a life that's quiet and uneventful but makes him happy just the same. The conversation one night in the diner swirls around poolhalls and a waitress' new fling until a couple of cash-strapped thugs on the lam barge in. Tom does his damndest to end this peacefully and quietly, offering the robbers the meager stack of bills in the till, but that's not nearly enough for them. The situation quickly escalates, and Tom retaliates by leaping over the counter and, like something straight out of a Hollywood blockbuster, quickly and mercilessly kills them both.

Tom is shellshocked by what he's done but is heralded as a hero, quickly becoming a sort of local celebrity. The press coverage puts him on the radar of Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris), a scarred, half-blind gangster from Philly who rolls into town to chat up his old pal Joey Cusack. Tom insists that this is some sort of Hitchcockian Wrong Man case of mistaken identity, but Carl isn't buying it, continuing to skulk around Milbrook until Tom's forced into a corner once again... There's much more to reveal about the plot of A History of Violence, but unlike its theatrical trailer that gives away virtually every last twist and turn, I'd just as soon save some of the surprise for those who haven't had a chance to see it before.

A History of Violence sidesteps much of what the director's rabidly loyal fans have come to expect from David Cronenberg, veering away -- at least in the traditional sense -- from his usual themes of bodily transformation and the blurry lines separating fantasy and reality. A film with "violence" in the title brings about certain expectations, especially with a name like Cronenberg's on the marquee. This isn't a movie that's sopping in blood for 96 minutes straight, though. A History of Violence is a coiled snake; directed with an assured hand by Cronenberg, the movie moves at a relaxed pace but is unerringly taut, and that makes its strikes that much more devastating when its ferocity is unleashed.

It's a statement about the impact violence can have -- both on an individual as well as the world at large -- without feeling as if Cronenberg is preaching from some sort of celluloid pulpit. There's a rush of adrenaline that comes with seeing Tom so quickly and unflinchingly brutally dispatch the two murderers who've barged into his diner, and he's widely celebrated as a hero. This isn't The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly where gunned down bandits clutch their chests and maybe have a faint crimson smear on their tattered shirts; we see torn flesh and caved-in noses in graphic detail. Without underlining his intent, Cronenberg deftly presents a number of questions: Can this sort of act truly be considered heroism? Those in the audience enthralled by how swiftly and effectively Tom leapt into action are almost certainly unsettled by its disturbing aftereffects; what does that say about us? Any other director would've tossed aside any subtext and flailed his arms around to highlight the underlying message, but Cronenberg's talent and confidence take what could've been an indifferent shrug of a film in lesser hands and elevate it into something far more remarkable.

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primary cast, at least, is exceptional as well. This is a demanding role for Viggo Mortensen, and his extraordinary turn here really ought to have earned him a nod from the Academy. Maria Bello doesn't bother with the traditional role of the harried wife -- at least at the outset, Edie is more confident and aggressive than her husband -- and the two of them engage in an intriguing role reversal and also explore the inescapable link between sex and violence. As always, Ed Harris is a standout, exuding menace as a heavily scarred gangster from back east without having to raise his voice or wave around a pistol.

Admittedly, A History of Violence isn't perfect. The supporting cast has a tendency to slip comfortably into stereotypes, and the superhuman brutality in the climax -- anchored by an astonishingly hammy William Hurt with fist-sized chunks of the scenery he's gnawing on trapped in his ridiculous looking beard -- feels out of step with the rest of the movie. It's thrilling to watch but seems to have been nicked from another film altogether. On the other hand, the final few minutes that follow are extraordinary, making for one of my favorite finalés this side of Bullitt. Not nearly enough movies take the time to consider how these sorts of men go on with their lives after suffering through this type of ordeal.

A History of Violence is one of David Cronenberg's most accessible films, but stepping into the mainstream hasn't watered down any of the director's sensibilities. It's a beautifully shot film with a number of intriguing camera angles and some particularly deft interplay between light and shadow. Cronenberg and his cast elevate the screenplay into something much more extraordinary than it likely would've been otherwise, bridging the few scattered acts of violence with moments that are quiet and somber but no less compelling. On one hand, Cronenberg's work is underrepresented on Blu-ray, and it's somewhat of a thrill to see a movie I admire so much finally make its bow in high definition. It's a shame, then, that it's New Line -- perhaps the single worst outfit releasing on the format these days -- that's tasked with bringing the film to Blu-ray, and Cronenberg's keen visual eye is dulled by the studio's overreliance on filtering and excessive processing. If a better studio had issued A History of Violence, I'd have recommended this Blu-ray disc far more enthusiastically, but this lackluster effort unfortunately doesn't warrant more than a rental. Rent It.

Again, A History of Violence is a disappointment on Blu-ray, although that's really par for the course for New Line. Although fairly tight closeups generally look alright, much of the fine detail has been filtered away, and the image has been artificially sharpened -- resulting in some nasty ringing around edges -- in an anemic stab at compensating. The 1.85:1 image has a distractingly overprocessed look to it, more closely resembling a lackluster airing on HBO-HD than a newly-minted Blu-ray release.

Cronenberg's 96 minute film has been encoded with VC-1 and is served up on a single-layered platter.

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This 16-bit Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack, on the other hand, is better than average. Because Cronenberg is more fascinated by the hypocrisy and lingering aftereffects of violence than the acts themselves, the sound design isn't overly aggressive. Still, shattered glass, cracks of gunfire, and the meaty thud of kicks and blows take full advantage of the multichannel setup, attacking the surrounds and reinforced effectively by the LFE. Atmospherics and ambiance are consistently strong, and there's even some directionality to the dialogue to add an extra layer of immersion. I really can't muster any complaints at all.

Also included are a traditional Dolby Digital 5.1 track alongside subtitles in English (SDH) and Spanish.

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  • Audio Commentary: A History of Violence may not be teeming with extras, but the few it does include are exceptional, and the highlight by far is David Cronenberg's commentary track. It's thoughtful and unrelentingly engaging, addressing everything from the psychology of his characters to lighting and set design to his approach to directing. Other comments of note include Cronenberg opting for Irish mobsters rather than the usual Italian cliché, his tendency to incorporate a smirking sense of humor into even his bleakest films, a dripping-wet deleted scene set before the first sex sequence, and the bruises peppering Maria Bello's back inspired by the actual wear she suffered shooting a more carnal sex scene on a wooden staircase. This is one of the best audio commentaries I've delved into over the past year, and it's an essential listen.

  • Acts of Violence (66 min.): Both dazzlingly
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    thorough and enormously entertaining, this eight part documentary explores every conceivable aspect of production. It's propelled by an exceptionally strong sense of personality, including one actor picking up a Philly accent by palling around with Maria Bello's Uncle Pete, bonding over gaudy, fish-centric T-shirts, and the freewheeling and deeply collaborative atmosphere on the set. Running more than an hour in length, there are far too many highlights throughout "Acts of Violence" to rattle off in this sort of review, but particularly deserving of a mention are a series of very thoughtful comments on the script, a step-by-step look at the making of a squib, the representation of violence in the film, Cronenberg's unconventional selection of angles while shooting the action, and the director taking a rare step working inside the studio system.

  • Scene 44 (10 min.; partially HD): A graphic, disturbing dream sequence was trimmed out of the movie during editing, and Cronenberg went back and polished it for home video. The scene is the only high definition extra on this set, and it's bookended by some black-and-white footage to help put it in context. Scene 44 runs 3 minutes in total, and Cronenberg offers optional audio commentary in which he speaks about his disinterest in the rough deleted scenes that generally claw their way to DVD as well as why this scene didn't make its way into the movie proper. This is a technically elaborate sequence, and a look at its production is highlighted in a separate seven minute making-of featurette.

  • Too Commercial for Cannes (9 min.): Despite seeming almost hopeful that his movie would be rejected from Cannes for being too commercial, this featurette follows Cronenberg every step of the way at the festival, from shimmying up a ladder for a tech check to making the rounds with the press to his stab at photojournalism. Once again, Cronenberg's magnetic personality is what defines this featurette.

  • Violence's History: U.S. versus International (90 seconds): Cronenberg illustrates the very slight differences in gore between the domestic and international cuts of the film, and really, they're so marginal that he didn't feel an unrated DVD/Blu-ray disc would even be worth releasing on these shores. A bit of behind the scenes footage is included as well.

  • Trailer: A theatrical trailer -- not in high definition, for whatever reason -- rounds out the extras on this Blu-ray disc.

  • Digital Copy: A standard definition copy of A History of Violence has been provided on a second disc for use on computers and portable media devices.

The Final Word
A History of Violence may not be as consistently visceral as Cronenberg's best known work, but this transition into the mainstream is as engrossing and haunting as much of anything else he's directed, and the strength of the film is owed to his sensibility and inspired casting. Disappointingly, though, New Line opted to overprocess the high definition video and drain away much of what makes Blu-ray appealing in the first place, and I can't in good conscience recommend paying $20 for yet another of the studio's hackjobs. Rent It.
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