But those are just superficial aspects. The film is, ultimately, a David Cronenberg film, with all the positive and negative attributes that denotes.
David Cronenberg has two major strengths as a filmmaker. The first is his ability to craft impressive, memorable visuals. He does that here, both in images of violence and rustic beauty. It is strange to see the man who brought us Videodrome and Scanners create images of Americana that easily outdo those in most movies by more conventional directors. Cronenberg is, simply, a superior visual composer than most, and while the sucking wounds in the movie are closer to his trademark, he brings that to all aspects of the production.
The second major strength Cronenberg has is his ability to infuse his films with theme and subtext. Anyone who wants to turn their brain off for 90 minutes is advised to avoid his work. Cronenberg wants to make you think, and he's good at it. Sometimes he does this in innovative and interesting ways that draw you in, like with Videodrome, and sometimes he overplays his hand and becomes preachy and grating, like with Existenz. A History of Violence is much closer to the first than the second. A layered examination of violence is coiled underneath and throughout every scene and every plotline. The movie is about violence in a deep and profound way.
And this brings up Cronenberg's major weaknesses. Characters and plot. His films are so focused on subtext that they often treat the surface text as a mere holding bag, to be crumpled up and tossed away when the point has been made. None of Cronenberg's characters are memorable except insofar as the actors make them memorable. We remember Max Renn as James Woods surrounded by weird shit, and Johnny Smith as Christopher Walken...being Christopher Walken. The actors in A History of Violence do a good job of making their characters work, but the film's lack of interest in those characters is clear. We never really get to know them, or spend time with them except when it works to the subtext. They must develop in the crevices of the film.
And the plot is kind of silly and not deeply explored. Which is a valid choice, but one that will disappoint some viewers.
Of course Cronenberg has another strength, external to that of directing, and that is as an analyst of his own work. His directors commentaries are phenomenal. While many prattle on about trivia Cronenberg dives in and dissects. Sure he throws off a few comments about what's a set and what's not, but even those are often to make a point about the nature of filmed 'reality' and not just to tell you where in Canada the scene was shot.
A History of Violence is not, ultimately, a great film. It's not complete enough on the surface for that. But it's a smart film and an interesting film, and a film that tries to say something worth saying, and for that it's better than 95% of what's out there. Cronenberg's excellent commentary means the DVD is more than worth your time.