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Starring Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, William Hurt, and Ed Harris
Directed by David Cronenberg
Distributed by New Line Home Entertainment
David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence might not be your typical horror film, but the themes it explores are deeply rooted in fear and horror. What Cronenberg does in his film is show us the horror that lies just around every corner, in every life, and in even the smallest, quietest of towns. He takes a typically momentous occasion – the crowning of a local hero as a result of his astounding bravery – and turns it into the beginning of a downward spiral of violence, fear, and mystery. By turning this hero-making moment on its head, Cronenberg invites the audience to realize that acts of horror and violence can come from even the smallest of things. A simple act of bravery, in this case, opens Cronenberg’s main character up to a world that most people would never imagine could exist in a small town like Millbrook, Indiana. David Cronenberg’s been turning viewer expectations upside down, in his films, for years but never has he been able to do it in such a commercial way before. With the release of A History of Violence, Cronenberg proves that commercially viable films can also be incredibly poignant, thought-provoking, and unexpected.
Easily the most accessible film he’s ever made, Cronenberg’s A History of Violence tells the story of small-town diner owner, Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), and his close-knit family of four. After fairly easily disposing of two thugs during a robbery attempt, Tom becomes a local hero and, in turn, finds himself at the receiving end of some real trouble. Tom’s newfound celebrity brings Philadelphia mobster Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) to Millbrook insisting that Tom is actually a man named Joey Cusack who Fogarty clearly has some unfinished business with. The plot may sound a bit formulaic, but you can rest assured that in the capable hands of a director like David Cronenberg, the film is anything but your typical thriller. Loosely based on the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke, A History of Violence works just fine as a suspenseful, action-packed thriller, but its so much more than just that. Upon closer inspection, the film deeply examines small-town family life, the ability of people to become whoever they want to be, and the resounding power of love and loyalty.
What makes Cronenberg such a master at his craft – and also what makes A History of Violence so incredibly effective – is the director’s complete and utter trust in both his actors and his audience. Not many directors trust their audience enough to begin their film with a single, nearly five-minute long tracking shot. Not only that, but Cronenberg takes his time with his subject. He knows his audience will stick it out, as long as he makes his characters and his images interesting. Some people might find the first half-hour of A History of Violence slow, but I think a better way to describe it would be methodical. Cronenberg takes nearly all of this first thirty minutes to establish his characters, his location, and their connection to each other. He shows the Stall family in their natural environment (a very small town that clearly makes them feel secure, but also works to make the audience feel secure), and shows them as an incredibly loving, caring family. When little Sarah Stall (Heidi Hayes) wakes up terrified from a nightmare – in the first few minutes of the film – we get to see the entire family come to her rescue, each with their own special way of making her feel safe from the monsters. Nearly thirty minutes of seeing this family interact in their small-town life is what makes everything that happens to them, later in film, carry so much weight. There aren’t many directors that have the patience, and trust in their audience, to use this much time to establish their characters and setting. This is, precisely, what makes Cronenberg such a great director.
In addition to an excellent screenplay, written by Josh Olson, and the great direction, A History of Violence also boasts a wonderful cast. Viggo Mortensen does a fantastic job of balancing every side of his character. His subtle acting brings a level of realism in Tom Stall that few actors could provide, and Cronenberg knows exactly how to use his character. The addition of Maria Bello, William Hurt, and Ed Harris only gives the film that much more substance, but it’s also the excellent work of smaller players, like Ashton Holmes and Peter MacNeill, which makes the film so engaging.
New Line not only presents the film in a superb anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen transfer and both excellent Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 audio formats, but they’ve also packed in a lot more supplemental material than you might think by first looking at the list of extras. An exhaustive hour-long documentary called Acts of Violence provides a in-depth behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film. Not your typical EPK style featurette, this documentary contains a ton of actual set footage in addition to the numerous interviews with just about every main player in the film. Split up into eight sections, Acts of Violence is a great look at the making-of A History of Violence, which turns out to be both insightful and entertaining.
Also included is an excellent audio commentary by Director David Cronenberg. Not only is he very chatty throughout, but Cronenberg talks at length about the film’s themes and his intentions. Cronenberg discusses the use of physical violence in the film, and also explains what each actor brought to their character which may not have initially been in the script. Overall, it’s a well-done commentary that’s easily worth a listen. Finally, there are a few smaller featurettes that show the very slight differences between the United States Version of the film and the International Version, the cast and crew premiering their film at the Cannes Film Festival, and the making (and deletion) of Scene 44.
Most people probably wouldn’t consider A History of Violence much of a horror film. Sure, it’s certainly a drama, a thriller, and a crime film, but if you don’t think there’s some of David Cronenberg’s usual horror in there, you’re sadly mistaken. In addition to the usual Cronenberg gore, there’s a really deep sense of dread that sits just under the surface through the entirety of the film. And, in my humble opinion, not only does A History of Violence fit very nicely into the David Cronenberg oeuvre, but it also fits just fine into the horror genre. By crafting a film that gets under the skin of everyone who feels safe in their small middle-America towns, Cronenberg delivers a grotesque meditation on the horrors that lie not only within every single corner of the world, but also the horror that might just lie inside every single one of us. If that’s not enough to scare you, I don’t know what is.
Acts of Violence documentary
Audio Commentary by David Cronenberg
Violence’s History: United States Version vs. International Version featurette
The Unmaking of Scene 44 featurette
Too Commercial for Cannes featurette
Deleted scene with optional commentary by David Cronenberg
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