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A History of Violence (Blu-ray)
Warner Home Video / 2005 / 96 Minutes / Unrated
Street Date: February 10, 2009
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Reviewed by High-Def Digest Staff
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
Dare I risk the wrath of the fanboys and the critical intelligentsia and say I'm not a fan of graphic novels and comic books? Not that I don't appreciate and respect the forms, I've just never had much predisposition for them. Their visual language and syncopated grammar just don't speak to me, nor have I ever been particularly drawn to characters who need to express their duality by appearing in human form one moment, then a costume the next. Even the more adult brand of graphic novel -- such as 'Road to Perdition,' or John Wagner and Vince Locke's 'A History of Violence' -- has little appeal. I just cannot connect with the medium.
So it is high praise indeed that David Cronenberg's adaptation of 'Violence' is the first such film that inspired me to go back and read the graphic novel. Here is the rare big-screen version of a "comic" that feels entirely free of the conventions of the genre, and but is also wholly filmic in its approach and thematic concerns. Cronenberg and screenwriter Josh Olson take the graphic novel and, by being both faithful to the source and adding their own elements to the story, are able to pay homage to and deconstruct the very nature of the cinematic mythology of violence. That Cronenberg somehow also manages to make an art film that cons us into believing it is a mainstream and accessible thriller only makes the accomplishment all the more amazing.
For those who have not yet seen the film, the less one says about the exact nature of the plot the better. Wagner and Locke's tale is one of Tom Stall. Tom seems to be a loving family man and a highly-esteemed member of his community, who is elevated to local celebrity after he kills two suspected armed robbers at his neighborhood diner. But Stall's strangely adept use of gunplay, and the increasing media scrutiny, begin to suggest that there may be more to Tom's back story than he is letting on. Is this all merely a case of misplaced identity, or does Stall have a history of violence?
Cronenberg has always poked and prodded at the darkest recesses of human nature, and in particular our culture's elevation and promotion of the anti-hero, but what marks 'A History of Violence' as superior, even among Cronenberg's canon, is how he is able to rip apart societal hypocrisy without resorting to didactic melodrama, or worse, condescending moralism. The methodical unfolding of the plot forces us to empathize with Stall whether or not we are aware of his actual history, so that when the truths are finally revealed, we can't help but question our own relation to the same impulses. One's reaction -- whether to continue to cheer him on as a hero, or recoil in disgust at our own identification -- is entirely subjective. 'A History of Violence' is so very effective precisely because it is so challenging, and how rare to find a work of mainstream Hollywood cinema that is so unflinching in its desire to hold a mirror up to our ugliness.
My one criticism of 'A History of Violence' is that the film may not work quite as a well as a thriller as some have said. I sometimes find Cronenberg's style too coolly detached, or intentionally slow-paced -- sort of like the knee-jerk attempt by a counter-culture filmmaker not to be overtly commercial. 'A History of Violence' frequently stretches some scenes too far, almost to the breaking point, and though certainly the moments of violence are the more shocking to our system because of this, other moments in the film ultimately seem to drift in and out of focus.
Yet 'A History of Violence' works on just about every level it attempts. Cronenberg is at the height of his powers, and gifted with such a literate script. The performances are all first-rate, particularly Mortensen, as well as Maria Bello as his slow-to-realize wife Edie, and William Hurt (in an Oscar-nominated performance) as a character who may be the most monstrous in recent cinema. Add to that the understated if impeccable photography and production design, and you have in 'A History of Violence' a true cinematic gem of a graphic novel adaptation. It works visually, narratively, and thematically.
'A History of Violence' was first released on standard DVD in early 2006. I did a compare of that version to this Blu-ray. The high-def edition is superior... if still less than truly excellent in terms of image quality.
This Blu-ray offers up a 1080p/VC-1 encode framed at 1.85:1. The presentation looks somewhat soft, with a weird flatness throughout and a somewhat dampening of the mid-range contrast. Though certainly better in high-def, the image could be considered murky. At least it is generally well-detailed anyway, and again exceeds the DVD in terms of depth and shadow delineation. Colors are on the muted side (this appears to be intentional) but nicely consistent and free of bleeding. Fleshtones are fairly accurate, but sometimes look artificial. New Line has produced a solid encode, with no real visible artifacts save for a bit noise mixed in with film grain.
New Line/Warner offers us a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround option (48kHz/16-bit) track. Though technically an action film, 'A History of Violence' feels more like an art film, with sound design to match -- it's far more subtle than bombastic.
'A History of Violence' is marked by bursts of violence, mostly gunplay, which really kick in in TrueHD. These scenes come alive with quite impressive loudness to discrete effects, and they are often very well placed in the soundfield. The low-key score is also nicely modulated to deliver unsettling, sustained ambiance. 'A History of Violence' is still quite dialogue-driven, however, and many scenes are largely subdued. Dialogue is perfectly pitched and balanced, so I never had trouble understanding even the most hushed tones.
The original DVD of 'A History of Violence' boasted a seemingly simple but quite in-depth look at the making of the film. Thankfully, all those extras are ported over here, so this remains a fine set. All video is in 480i/MPEG-2 only.
- Audio Commentary - I've always been a fan of David Cronenberg's commentary tracks, because there are few directors working today who can match him in terms of intelligence and insight. 'A History of Violence' may be just about his best -- he is methodical and articulate about examining every last corner of his decision-making process. He highlights not only the technical and performance issues of key scenes, but the changes and additions he made to the original story, and what he saw as the main thematic concerns. An excellent commentary.
- Documentary: "Acts of Violence" (SD, 66 minutes) - As if such a fine audio commentary weren't enough, we get a self-contained documentary that itself is worth the price of admission. Divided into eight parts (here called "acts"), literally every nook and cranny of the production -- literally from the first scene -- is covered with on-set interviews and video diary-esque footage. And for once, there is far less repetition with the commentary than usual. If you're a fan of 'A History of Violence,' this is well worth the time commitment.
- Featurette: "Violence's History: United States Version vs. International Version" (SD, 2 minutes) - This amusing montage compares the relatively minor differences in graphic violence and sex between the domestic and overseas cuts of the film. Most amusing is a rapid-fire edit of the film's most violent scenes.
- Featurette: "Too Commercial For Cannes" (SD, 4 minutes) - Another fun document, this time of Cronenberg acting enjoyably bratty as he comments on footage of himself turning the cameras on the paparazzi and otherwise being a nuisance. At a festival that has now gotten as snobby as Cannes, that's a good thing.
- Featurette: "The Unmasking of Scene 44"/Deleted Scene (SD, 10 minutes) - Easily one of the best segments I've seen on a deleted scene, here Cronenberg talks in detail about the excerpt in question -- involving a particularly disturbing killing -- and why, despite it being unnecessary to the final cut, Cronenberg finished it anyway for the DVD. After the featurette, the scene in question is presented in its entirety.
- Theatrical Trailer (SD) - Finally, we get the film's original theatrical trailer to round out the set.
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'A History of Violence' is a film that works on many levels, and often plays with our expectations of the crime genre. It's a highly potent, mature, and reflective work -- one of David Cronenberg's best. This Blu-ray is a solid release in terms of video and audio, and the supplements are noteworthy. 'A History of Violence' is well worth checking out.