A History of Violence Review

David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence is a film which takes place in a very specific milieu. It’s not a case of reality as such, more a kind of symbolic model. Over the years Cronenberg has taught us to pay attention to the details when it comes to his films, and so it is here. The opening moments serve almost as a guide to Americana; they’re not really scenes, but a succession of archetypes. The small town, the motel, the diner, the high school, the cheerleader as sexual fantasy – all come into play. They present a vision of normality into which steps Viggo Mortensen, here presented first and foremost as a father and family man. Moreover, the dialogue is strangely heightened and pronounced; on the surface straightforward, it nonetheless possesses an enigmatic quality and is dominated by lengthy pauses. Even the words themselves feel slightly askew, especially when it comes to the key theme, violence. There’s talk of “acts of violence” and to “do violence” – and like I say, it doesn’t feel quite real.

Yet this is also a discernibly modern world, complete with Larry King and oral sex. Indeed, there’s definitely a pulse beneath this familiar model, none more so than when the narrative kicks in at the twenty-five minute mark. The first in a number of extremely violent scenes erupts onto the screen and the film can never quite be the same again: threatened by a pair of lowlifes who enter his diner at closing, Mortensen kills in self-defence and earns himself minor celebrity status as a result. He may declare shortly afterwards that he’s “trying to get back to normal”, yet it’s clear that this won’t be the case. After all, his actions bring a scarred Ed Harris to town and with him A History of Violence heads off into a different, much darker territory.

Harris’ stranger, a member of the Irish mob who believes Mortensen to be “crazy fuckin’ Joey” the fellow hood who caused his scarring, continues the use of archetypes. He introduces some noir-ish tendencies into the film – fifty years ago his heavies would have been played by Jacks Elam and Lambert – as well as numerous cinematic references. Time and again A History of Violence feels as though it could be about to spill over into some previous classic, even if it never quite makes it: The Petrified Forest, The Desperate Hours, Bad Day at Black Rock, Straw Dogs. And of course, in making these associations the film has to, in some way, live up to them.

Yet A History of Violence isn’t a thriller, or at least not in the conventional sense. Certainly, it’s seemingly Cronenberg’s most mainstream effort since The Dead Zone (oddly, but also rather fittingly, Howard Shore’s score could have accompanied Forrest Gump at moments), and there’s also heavy play on Mortensen’s increasing paranoia, yet at the same time the more generic devices continually short circuit themselves. Just when we think we know where the film is headed, and therefore where it will remain for the duration, Cronenberg brings developments to a conclusion and heads off elsewhere. Indeed, we’re not getting The Petrified Forest and the rest, but then it is important that we could be. A History of Violence is essentially a look at characters under duress when their normality has been firmly shaken – not just Mortensen’s but his family’s as well. And what could be more testing that believing that your home could come under siege at any time, or that your father/husband may not be who you think he is, or these sudden interjections of sheer violence which punctuate the film?

In this respect the masterstroke proves to be the casting of Viggo Mortensen. Elsewhere the casting revolves largely around utilising certain faces and types, a fitting choice given that an archetypal small town needs its archetypal sheriff and the like. Yet Mortensen isn’t an actor who satisfies a type, his career having been too erratic and too devoid of big hits (aside from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, of course) for him to have made a genuine, widespread impact. He seems to flit easily between roles – from a Vietnam vet in Sean Penn’s The Indian Runner to a Pony Express courier in Hidalgo - and it works terrifically in this instance. Because we don’t know Mortensen just yet, the same is also true of character. As such he’s able to continually catch us off guard and surprise us, yet at the same time he has the calibre as a performer to ensure that we believe every turn. By extension, of course, much the same is true of A History of Violence itself; the symbolic, and therefore allegorical, approach may perhaps suggest otherwise, but it’s a film which takes us to some unexpected places, and with remarkable potency at that.

The Disc

Released in the UK by Entertainment, A History of Violence comes not only with a fine presentation, but also special features identical to those found on the US edition. The film itself arrives in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement and, for the most part, is treated to a flawless transfer. The print is spotless, the low-key palette is ably handled and the level of detail as you’d expect from such a new a production. The only discernible flaw is the presence of some minor edge enhancement during some of the early scenes, though this is by no means a distraction. As for the soundtrack, the disc goes for the original DD5.1 recording and it comes across without difficulties. Crisp and clear throughout, it copes just as well with Howard Shore’s score as it does the dialogue (from whispers to Stephen Hattie’s jolt-inducing cry of “COFFEE!!”).

The key addition in terms of extras is the feature-length commentary by Cronenberg himself. Opting for the scene-specific route, he provides an agreeably full listen and, as you’d expect, a highly intelligent one. Given that the film itself is so rich, he’s able to cover to a great deal of ground within his allotted ninety minutes, all of which sticks firmly to narrative and its telling. As such there are no on-set anecdotes or the like, but rather a shrewd, considered discussion which is well worth paying attention to.

The ‘Acts of Violence’ documentary again includes plenty of input from Cronenberg, although here he’s just one of numerous talking heads. Essentially the setup is not dissimilar to your standard EPK package – a mixture of clips, interviews and B-roll footage – but thankfully there’s no sycophancy and empty soundbites here. Rather once more we get considered discussion, although it is debatable as to whether it quite needs to be the length that it is. To be honest, its 66 minutes can be quite wearying.

Elsewhere the additions are much shorter and more focussed in their attentions. ‘Too Commercial For Cannes’ is a nine-minute video diary by the director which takes us through press interviews, the premiere and the like at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival. ‘Scene 44’ on the other hand is a deleted dream sequence which comes with optional commentary by Cronenberg and its own attendant featurette. Here we’re taken through its making and the reasons for its excisions – intriguingly because it was most Cronenberg-ian moment in the original. Meanwhile, the featurette is also worth a look for a fine self-deprecating gag from the director regarding Videodrome.

Also worth noting is the presence of ‘Violence’s History’ which touches on the differences between the UK version and the MPAA-approved US edition; interestingly it all comes down to the quotient of blood and not actual cuts. (This is being the reason for there not being two individual cuts on the disc – Cronenberg felt the differences were too negligible for such a move to be justified.) Rounding off the package we also find the expected theatrical trailer.

As with the main feature, all extras including commentaries come with optional English subtitling.

8 out of 10
8 out of 10
8 out of 10
8 out of 10


out of 10

Last updated: 19/04/2018 06:14:53

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