A History of Violence Review

When I first saw A History of Violence in the theater, there was an older woman on the walk out who said she hadn’t enjoyed it, as it was too violent.

What do you say to a person like that?

The Film:

I’ve seen A History of Violence about 5 times now. On each subsequent viewing, it becomes more and more evident to me of what a virtually flawless film it is. It’s difficult to put into words why the film works so well. It’s got this air of mystique about it that’s subversive and unnerving, it makes you hesitant to enjoy the good in life, because you’re aware of the bad. Watching and listening to the film are secondary to experiencing it, to internally accepting what it has to say as truth. For a film so seemingly straightforward in its series of events, it’s unbelievable how captivating even its simplest sequences are. More than the understated brutality of the violence, its success lies in the stranglehold it has on its audience. Everything in the film is relatable on some level, from the bully confrontation to the fear of a lost child, nothing misses its mark.

More than any half-hearted analysis can show, A History of Violence draws you in through its mixture of thematic, aural and visual beauty. The color palate and score aid the beauty and depth of the tale being told, much like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Last Action Hero before it. What Cronenberg accomplished with A History of Violence, more so than with even Videodrome or The Fly, was a perfect amalgamation of beautiful, poignant storytelling, uniformly expert performances from an adequately sized ensemble, and genuine filmic beauty. Whether or not Violence is superior to Cronenberg’s earlier masterpieces is debatable, but it must be granted that Violence comes from an altogether different, and perhaps equally disturbing place.

The Picture:

A History of Violence on Blu-ray is at first glance, a disappointment. The opening shot opens with a thin layer of visual grain noticeable over the cooler areas of the image. Thankfully, as soon as the opportunity arises for dramatic foreground/background separation, I never noticed the grain again, as I was truly taken aback by the startling 3D popping effect Blu-ray has come to be known for. As one of the killers enters the motel office, it seems that the wall behind him is truthfully twice as far away as it is. The film’s short depth of field is aided by the high-def image immensely, making characters stand out like black figures on white paper. I’ve seen better Blu-ray transfers, but never has the separation between characters and their environments been this brilliant. The dramatic saturation of the image is also made endlessly more beautiful, making simple shots like Sheriff Sam talking to Fogarty against a cloudy backdrop simply, utterly gorgeous.

The Audio:

Rocks. Gunshots stand out from the silence almost like they would in real life. Howard Shore’s score utterly engrosses you like it never has on home video before, and the crystal-clarity of the voices makes the shouting and whispering alike completely lifelike, almost too lifelike. When Edie yells, “Fuck you, Joey!” it’s like a hammer to the chest as the depth in her voice presses in on you from seemingly all sides. Really, truly awesome work.

Blu-ray Bonus Features

All the extras from the standard-def release have been carried over, thank God, but they’re still presented in 480i, and there aren’t any new ones to speak of (Though there is a digital copy included in standard definition).

First up is the commentary by David Cronenberg. It’s a rather drab and slow track, but he rarely stops speaking. However, I did notice only a few minutes in that he wasn’t really saying much the careful viewer couldn’t observe and come to understand on their own. While it is interesting to hear his take on the carefully directed family dynamics, it seems like most of what he’s describing could be ascertained by simply watching the movie again.

"Acts of Violence"

A seven-part documentary over an hour in length. It carefully details the processes of developing several major sequences in the film, but all in all it’s pretty lifeless. The best stuff is seeing Cronenberg direct his actors, but most of it is taken up by crew interviews that just aren’t that engrossing. Kind of a shame.

"Deleted Scene: Scene 44 / The Unmaking of Scene 44"

This is really how deleted scenes should be presented. While there is a commentary by David Cronenberg, the best stuff is the mini-featurette on the scene. If you care, I’m glad the scene’s not in the film, as it’s simply not necessary.

"Violence’s History: United States version vs. International Version"

Here is an extremely brief featurette showing the different cuts of two sequences. It’s neat.

My favorite extra is "Too Commercial for Cannes", a four-minute segment with Cronenberg before and after the movie’s debut at Cannes. The best part is seeing the Eight-Billion Dollar Man Steven Spielberg giving Cronenberg a standing ovation. Nice.

Finally, a trailer.

Final Thoughts

This was an exceedingly difficult review for me to write. Analyzing the film on paper is like describing why ice cream tastes good. The facts are that ice cream tastes good, and A History of Violence is a beautiful f--king film. See it.

"A History of Violence" is on sale February 10, 2009 and is rated R. Drama. Directed by David Cronenberg. Written by Josh Olson (Screenplay), John Wagner and Vince Locke (Novel). Starring Ed Harris, Maria Bellow, Viggo Mortensen, William Hurt.

Saul Berenbaum

I feel that movies can be great in many ways. I feel that a great movie could be an artistic masterpiece or a guns-a'blazin' roller-coaster, pure magic or pure camp. There is another type of film, which I detest more than those which are horrible - Those which are mediocre, unremarkable.


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