HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, A - Blu-ray review

The movie begins slowly, methodically, and builds increasingly toward a devastating climax.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

Note: In the following joint Blu-ray review, both John and Erik provide their opinions of the film, with John also writing up the Video, Audio, Extras, and Parting Thoughts.

The Film According to John:
What happens when a man's past catches up with him? It's a question that might well apply as much to director David Cronenberg's movies as to the main character in his 2005 thriller "A History of Violence."

Cronenberg began in television and then got into movies with a series of low-budget horror films that quickly picked up a following, films like "Shivers" (1975), "Rabid" (1977), and "The Brood" (1979). After that, his films increased in popularity with "Scanners" (1981), "Videodrome" (1983), and "The Dead Zone" (1983). The big turning points came with his reinterpretation of "The Fly" (1986), which transformed a standard sci-fi/horror flick into a serious character study and romance, followed by the ingenious "Dead Ringers" (1988). After that came a period of oddball films worthy of another director named David--David Lynch: "Naked Lunch" (1991), "M. Butterfly" (193), "Crash" (1996, and a film I quite disliked), "EXistenZ" (1999), and "Spider" (2002). All of these films had their fans, too, but in 2005 he made another complete turnaround with a truly mainstream production that attracted swarms of viewers and critics alike: "A History of Violence." It was so successful, he continued the trend with yet another traditional effort, the topflight gangster movie "Eastern Promises" (2007). Thus, the director has gone full circle.

"A History of Violence" is so outwardly orthodox it plays almost like an old-time Western melodrama. Indeed, Cronenberg could have set it in Dodge City, 1875, and nobody would have known the difference. You remember the classic "Shane," about the gunfighter who just wants to settle down on a ranch and lead a life of peace and quiet, but his past won't let him? Similar thing here, only Cronenberg invests his tale with more complexity and character interaction.

With a screenplay by Josh Olson based on the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke, "A History of Violence" tells the story of Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), a gentle, kind, soft-spoken man leading an idyllic small-town life in Millbrook, Indiana. He owns a diner in the village, he knows everybody by name, and everybody knows him and likes him. He has a lovely, lawyer wife (Maria Bello), a handsome teenage son (Ashton Holmes), a beautiful young daughter (Heidi Hayes), and a small home in a rural area just outside of town. Life is peaceful. Life is good.

But things are not always as they appear.

A pair of homicidal maniacs invade Tom's diner, intent on holding up the place and murdering everyone in it. Mild-mannered Tom swings into action, throwing hot coffee in the face of one of the gunmen, disarming him, and then shooting and killing them both. Tom becomes a national hero.

Shortly after Tom's story appears in headlines and his face on TV, a sinister gangster, Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris), and two henchmen show up at the diner, calling Tom "Joey."

The movie begins slowly, methodically, and builds increasingly toward a devastating climax. Indeed, its three main episodes--the pre-holdup, the post-holdup, and Tom's concluding visit to Philadelphia to visit his brother (William Hurt)--progressively compound in tension and violence. As the story advances, we learn more about Tom's past, the days before his Arcadian Millbrook existence. The movie tests the limits of how far one can push a person, and how far a person must run to escape his background.

Everyone has secrets; everyone has a "history." In "A History of Violence," Cronenberg explores the dark side of the American Dream, the evil underbelly of "respectability," much as David Lynch had done years earlier in "Blue Velvet." Moreover, Cronenberg suggests metaphorically that perhaps the country itself is so obsessed with violence, people cannot fully see or understand its implications in their daily lives.

Still, there are some shortcomings. Although the film attempts to describe the effects of one's past on one's present and, by implication, the nature of violence in our society, its relatively brief running time of just over ninety minutes prevents it from delving too deeply into its characters' psyches. And because of the movie's escalating violence, it becomes increasingly difficult to suspend one's disbelief and go along entirely with its reality. Yet it is that violence that is at the very center of the movie, the thing that drives it forward, the thing that makes us question the influence of environment on human affairs, the thing that forces us to recognize the duality of our lives, and even the thing that entertains us the most.

Perhaps Cronenberg is suggesting that violence is a necessary evil. Certainly, we would never know peace without its hurtful counterpart. In any case, in "A History of Violence" the director produces an engaging little film, filled with riveting performances and enough thought and action to keep most audiences intrigued for its duration. Just be aware that the movie relies on a strongly segmented narrative, and not all viewers will find each part of it as appealing as others.

The Academy nominated "A History of Violence" for two Oscars: William Hurt for Best Supporting Actor and Josh Olson for Best Adapted Screenplay. The MPAA assigned the film an R rating for "strong brutal violence, graphic sexuality, nudity, language, and some drug use."

John's film rating: 7/10

The Film According to Erik:
"A History of Violence" begins with a long, continuous shot that sets the mood and tone for the rest of the film. There is a subtle manipulation that starts when two men emerge from a motel somewhere in the vastness of Middle America. The men speak in terse beats that are incensed with a subtextual malaise that resonates through the scene. When one of the men enters the motel office, there is a sense that something isn't right and when the second later enters the motel, that sense is reaffirmed by the gruesome and intimate aftermath depicted. The rest of the film echoes this notion of violent pregnancy, the impending carnage, and that the men deserve to die.

Before they can get their comeuppance, director Cronenberg introduces us to Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) and his happy small-town life. Norman Rockwell would be proud of the kind of gee-whiz simplicity of the town in which Tom owns and runs a small diner, where he lives with his lawyer wife Edie (Maria Bello) and their two children. However, their quaint existence is torn apart when Tom stops the two men from the beginning of the film from robbing the diner. The action is brutal, fast, and sloppy, but in many ways it gives the audience what they expect (want) for the two nefarious fellows.

Tom is touted as a hero and is bombarded by a media circus that makes him very uncomfortable. He's thrust into the spotlight despite trying to return to his normal, everyday existence. Soon after, Tom is confronted by mobster Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris), who has seen Tom on the news and believes Tom is an old enemy named Joey Cusack. To say the least, Tom's idyllic existence is compromised by the violent act of heroism in the diner.

With "A History of Violence," Cronenberg created one of his most accessible films. With a running time just over ninety minutes, the film uncoils in a gleefully subversive manner towards what seems like the setup for a modern take on a Western/ revenge/ retribution dynamic. What we're actually given is a compelling examination of the implications of violence. The title alone works on a number of levels, acting as a thoughtful lamentation on the idea of violence and its place in American culture. However, the title is also a fitting nod to Tom's character and the complex nature of his being that is unknown to his family and friends.

Much like the film, Mortensen delivers a performance that is laced with subtle dissidence. Tom (or is it Joey?) is forced to examine his life in the wake of the violence he has unwillingly caused. Mortensen deftly handles the various sides to Tom in a brilliant and unflinching manner so well that you almost believe Tom is really who he believes he is.
(End of Spoiler)

Through the course of the story, Tom and his family battle against this case of supposed mistaken identity. Bello and Ashton Holmes, who plays Tom's son Jack, effectively portray the uncertain grief and confusion that follow in the wake of Tom's heroism in the diner. As the film takes turns for the worse, so do their ideas about Tom and who this man that they call father and husband really is. They struggle to cope with their changing reality almost as much as Tom does; even more so when they are forced to confront their relationships with each other and the divisive issues that surface as a result.

While not perfect, the film cleverly draws its audience into the graphic nature of violence and the way it subsequently affects the film's protagonists. Some people might ignore the drama developed by Tom's actions, but Cronenberg handles the drama in such a way that is very effective; it doesn't come across as soap opera-ish. Everyone closely connected to Tom is changed or, at the very least, forced to look at the consequences of their actions. The idea that violence breeds more violence and whether or not the vengeful instinct for destruction is imbedded in human DNA is at the heart of almost every scene. The film suggests that there is always more bubbling up just beneath the surface. What Cronenberg delivers is much more than what we might expect from the film's B-movie set up. "A History of Violence" is brilliantly crafted and is easily one of the best American films of 2005.

Erik's film rating: 9/10

Warners/New Line use a VC-1 encode on a single-layer BD25 to reproduce the movie's 1.85:1 high-definition image. While it looks fine, I can't say it looks any better than most of what I watch on high-definition cable, yet it should look better. I have the impression the video engineers may have used a degree of compression here that didn't fully realize the film's visual potential, and because the whole film is exceptionally clean, cleaner and smoother than normal film stock usually provides, I also have the impression they may have applied a degree of DNR filtering to achieve their effect.

In addition, we have the odd situation of black levels not looking quite as dark as they should be, yet people's faces often looking too dark. Then, too, I noticed several instances of shimmer, moiré effects, in closely spaced lines like cyclone fences and sewer grates. In its favor, most scenes display realistic colors and fairly good delineation, while a few other scenes, especially nighttime indoor shots, look dull or veiled, perhaps intentionally by the director.

The audio choices are Dolby TrueHD 5.1 and Dolby Digital 5.1, with the lossy Dolby Digital the default. As usual, I was well into the movie before remembering to switch to lossless TrueHD, another annoyance I wish Warners would rectify by making TrueHD the default. Anyway, the TrueHD doesn't provide too much improvement over the Dolby Digital because except for a few isolated cases of gunshots, most the sound is center-channel oriented dialogue, with some light background music. The dynamic impact is impressive when it does occur, however, so I can't complain about that. Mostly, the soundtrack in either format is perfunctory, doing its job as required.

The total length of the bonus items almost equals the running time of the movie. Interesting. Too bad they're all in standard definition. Things begin with an audio commentary by director David Cronenberg, who is as terse and direct as the main character in his movie. Fortunately, he is also quite straightforward and informative. Next is "Violence's History: United States version vs. International version," a very brief, one-and-half-minute look at a couple of violent scenes that the filmmakers had to modify for American audiences. After that is another brief featurette, the nine-minute "Too Commercial for Cannes," that follows the cast and crew to Cannes for the film's première. Then there's the longest item among the extras, "Acts of Violence," sixty-six minutes, a behind-the-scenes look at eight central scenes in the movie, with commentary from the actors and filmmakers involved. Lastly, we find a three-minute piece on "Scene 44," a deleted nightmare scene, with optional director commentary, and the seven-minute "Unmaking of Scene 44," which details the creation of the deleted scene.

The extras wrap with seventeen scene selections but no bookmarks; a widescreen theatrical trailer; English as the only spoken language; Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired. Warners/New Line also include in the package a standard-definition digital copy disc of the film, compatible with Windows Media only, not compatible with Macintosh or iPod devices.

Parting Thoughts:
"A History of Violence" is a fascinating look behind one man's facade of respectability and into the soul of a person trying desperately to reform his life. Cronenberg doesn't dwell too long on the philosophical ramifications of these issues and concentrates, rightly, on the action involved, leaving value judgments and speculations to the viewer. In doing so, he creates a thoughtful and entertaining bit of essentially old-fashioned hokum, which if taken literally may not bear up to close scrutiny but surely provides a good deal of subtle contemplation, with the advantage of an adrenaline rush along the way.

The film rating below is an average of John's and Erik's scores.


Film Value