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Blu-ray Review: A History of Violence

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David Cronenberg is one of the few directors who’s worthy of his own adjective. "Cronenbergian" conjures images of bizarre techno-organic creations, like the VCR vagina in Videodrome or the weird living typewriter bug of Naked Lunch. His early films were almost all horror, exploring the intersection of the human body and technology. More recently, he’s embarked on a new phase of his career, making films that are less genre and more mainstream. A History of Violence is his most successful of these films, thanks to a really compelling narrative, and a feeling of underlying rotting sickness that digs into the corruption beneath what looks like a small town ideal.

The film centers on Viggo Mortensen’s Tom, a seemingly ordinary family man in a small town. After dramatically stopping a robbery at a diner, his life begins to unravel, and secrets of his past come to the surface. The film’s deconstruction of suburbia echoes Lynch’s Blue Velvet, simultaneously tearing apart the illusion of safety that is suburban life, and celebrating it. But, unlike Lynch’s protagonists, Tom is aware of the fallacy of suburbia from the beginning. He’s trying to live with the innocence that his wife and family have, but is inevitably doomed to fail thanks to the darkness that lurks within him.

Looking at the film from an auteur perspective, the film features just enough Cronenberg elements to remain distinctly his — there is some graphic, weird violence, and the questions of identity are omnipresent in his oeuvre. However, at the same time, it’s a much more accessible package. The film is very violent, but it’s not as instantly off-putting as the bizarre worlds of Crash or Videodrome. As such, the film fluctuates at times between feeling like a somewhat generic thriller, and channeling that distinctly Cronenberg weirdness. Some people might say that he’s selling out by making films that abandon the idiosyncracies of his early work, but I think it’s a sign of artistic evolution. This film is much more compelling than Existenz, which was Cronenberg on autopilot, indulging all his pet concepts without any underlying emotional connection.

As for the film itself, it’s a tightly plotted, really well made thriller that’s buoyed largely by the killer lead performances. Viggo Mortensen fluctuates between all American family man and cold and inhuman with ease, and Ed Harris also kills it as a hard edged hitman. It’s easily Cronenberg’s best film since Crash.

Video is 1080p, presenting the film in its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1, though special features are in standard def. Audio sounds fantastic with a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix. I’ve got a six-speaker sound system, and it sounded extremely immersive, with the diner fight sequence as a true standout. On the whole, the Blu-ray presentation is fantastic. The image looks better than when I saw it in the theater, and sound is dynamic and immersive. Watching a regular DVD after seeing this Blu-ray made it clear how crisp this picture is.

In terms of special features, there’s a great commentary with Cronenberg, as well as a couple of goofy features about the film’s reception in Cannes, and the changes for the US release. Neither is essential, but they are entertaining.

If you’re looking for Cronenberg at his most extreme, I’d highly recommend checking out Crash, the film that will forever have to prefaced with, “No, not that movie with Ludacris, the one about people who have sex at car crashes.” But, this is a great example of his storytelling abilities; it’s the best of mainstream Cronenberg.

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