Nutty professor David Cronenberg returns to his laboratory lectern with A History of Violence, a film that investigates his own cinematic propensity for violence and skill at purveying it. Naturally, Cronenberg is keenly aware that he shares his interest with his audience, and the title of the film refers not only to the plot's central question—is a small-town man, in fact, on the run from his own criminal past?—but also to a legacy of screen sadism.
A History of Violence is a modern Western, with straight-talking men resigned, for the most part, to their violent duties. Cronenberg's film is also an action picture and a clever subversion of noir mystery, with a possible homme fatale. Viggo Mortensen plays Tom Stall, a family man accused of hiding his true identity. Pointing the finger are two Philadelphia-based goons (Stephen McHattie and Greg Bryk) who bring savagery home to roost in Tom's bucolic small town. The picture-perfect Rockwellian tableau virtually begs—like David Lynch's Lumberton in Blue Velvet—to be unearthed.
The consequences of an initial foray into violence include a series of uncomfortable questions about his apparent proficiency at killing and ironic hero worship (Tom bristles when described by a TV reporter as an "American hero—man of few words"). The question of Tom's identity, mistaken or not, won't go away. A man named Fogaty (Ed Harris) arrives, demanding that Tom—who he calls "Joey"—accompany him to Philadelphia. Harris's gangster chews at his bitterness until it becomes a delicious acquired taste: he delights at the prospect of revenge on the man he claims scarred him for life. (Yet another accuser comes in the form of William Hurt, likewise playing to the hilt with thoroughly creepiness.)
By all other evidence, Tom is a wronged man, a loving husband to his suddenly put-upon wife Edie (Maria Bello, never better) and teenage son Jack (breakout player Ashton Holmes), poised for manly initiation. Their family dynamic shifts to a tension of faithfulness tested by suspicion. Edie learns hard lessons about fear, loathing, and lust for roughness (Cronenberg orchestrates two memorably dirty sex scenes). Jack chooses to meet a jock's assertion of territorial dominance with comic deflation ("What would be the point?"), but the son must eventually size himself against his father's yardstick. Will the violence become domestic?
Cronenberg develops the story (scripted with style by Josh Olson) in an absorbing manner that implies anything can happen. Each time he twists the tension, it becomes harder to unwind, making the element of danger not mechanical but genuine. At every turn, the director implicates his audience: the threats of one of the "good" guys are couched in an insistence of rectitude ("This is a nice town. We have nice people here. We take care of our nice people") that rings hollowly. What makes an act of murderous intent "good" in some hands and "bad" in others? Cronenberg's "American Gothic" tale hands the question to the viewer.
By picture's end, the director waltzes happily into genre territory and makes mincemeat of his recent predecessors (Road to Perdition can't hold a candle to A History of Violence, and Tarantino can have a seat). Critics have been admonished to preserve the nature of the plot twists, but the most perverse is that A History of Violence, bloody though it may be, is a tragic love story. As in Romeo and Juliet, sex and violence are inextricable twin passions, and Cronenberg capitalizes on them as sick-comic beats. As ever, sex and violence can be random, can be animal, and certainly can be satisfying.
The Blu-ray debut of A History of Violence justifies an upgrade from DVD. It's a fine film from one of the best filmmakers working today, the new A/V transfer is an improvement, and all previous DVD extras are preserved on the Blu-ray. The picture quality is a mixed bag of sorts, given the waxy, smeary after-effects of digital noise reduction and the presence of edge enhancement. Despite these unfortunate issues, the image is stronger than DVD in overall detail, spot-on contrast, and accurate, rich color. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 and Dolby Digital 5.1 options are, in a word, awesome, carefully recreating the unsettlingly immersive soundscape we've come to expect of Cronenberg.
In bonus features, there's a commentary by director David Cronenberg. The charmingly erudite helmer is always fascinating and well-prepared. Here, he explains in detail from whence this project came, his own involvement in an unusually commercial film, his work with the writer and cast and studio (uh oh), and the production itself.
In "Violence's History: United States Version vs. International Version" (1:24, SD), Cronenberg narrates a comparison of the variant shots (there's also a bit of behind-the-scenes footage of the shooting of one of the scenes).
"Too Commercial for Cannes" (8:54, SD) observes Cronenberg bringing the film to Cannes for its premiere. Among those talking to the camera are Cronenberg, French publicist François Frey, Maria Bello, screenwriter Josh Olson, Viggo Mortensen, and Ashton Holmes.
The "minidocumentary gallery" Acts of Violence (1:06:17 with "Play All" option, SD) is actually a sliced-up, thorough, feature-length making-of documentary partially constructed around looks at eight key scenes, but also covering topics like Cronenberg's method, the familial mood on his sets (with such fun as "Fish Friday"), and capturing a Philadelphia dialect. Participants include Greg Bryk, Stephen McHattie, Olson, DP Peter Suschitzky, makeup supervisor Stephan Dupuis, producer Chris Bender, assistant set decorator Danielle Fleury, Mortensen, editor Ron Sanders, Holmes, stunt coordinator John "Stoney" Stoneham, Kyle Schmid, 1st assistant director Walter Gasparovic, on set dresser Greg Pelchat, key hair Mary-Lou Green-Benvenuti, publicist Prudence Emery, Bello, Ed Harris, spfx supervisor Neil Trifunovich, costume designer Denise Cronenberg, wardrobe truck supervisor Matthew Campbell, production designer Carol Spier, William Hurt, dialogue coach John Nelles, gun wrangler "Frenchie" Berger, and producer's assistant Neal Flaherty.
"Scene 44: Deleted Scene" (2:47, HD) comes with optional commentary by Cronenberg.
The featurette "The Unmaking of Scene 44" (7:05, SD) details the scene's making and why it was discarded, with comments from Cronenberg, Harris, Bender, Trifunovich, Dupuis. and Fogarty stunt double Dave Van Zeyl.
Last up is the "Theatrical Trailer" (2:24, SD)
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