Home / Movie Smackdown!: A History of Violence vs Straw Dogs

Movie Smackdown!: A History of Violence vs Straw Dogs

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Violence. We are fascinated by it, repelled by it, and we make violent movies about it that are supposedly meant to show us how terrible it really is. In the champion’s corner, we have Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs and in the other corner we have our challenger, David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence.


"I’m just a lucky shot… really…"

Straw Dogs (written by David Zelag Goodman and Sam Peckinpah) is about David, a young American mathematician (played by Dustin Hoffman) who comes to a British village with his wife, an English girl whose father owns a house there. She’s going back to her roots, he’s going to get a little work done, and love will be in the air.

A History of Violence (written by Josh Olson, based on the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke) looks in on another married couple in a small town. In this case, we’re in Indiana and Tom (played by Viggo Mortensen) runs a pleasant little diner that everybody in town feels comfortable with. On the subject of roots, we just know he’s running from his.

Naturally, knowing the pedigrees of Peckinpah and Cronenberg, we also know that things won’t stay peaceful long. In David’s case, he runs afoul of the local Brit rowdies almost immediately in his clueless way because, after all, he’s both American and an egghead. In Tom’s case, his idyllic life is shattered when a couple of worthless rapist/murderers decide they want more than coffee and he is forced to kill them.

There are two main problems with Straw Dogs. First, once you understand the situation it scarcely gets more complicated — you are simply waiting for the shoes to fall. Second, its moral outrage at violence is really a sham — it glories in it even though the degree that the violence is graphic seems tame by today’s standards.

A History of Violence, however, serves up its twist early and it settles nothing. Tom becomes a local hero and soon a couple of gangsters show up accusing him of being another man, a murderer they used to work with in Philadelphia. This is, as we say in the writing trade, a "good problem." There are multiple ways it could go. And, as it goes forward, there is violence, yes, but by the end of the film, you are left thinking about the whole topic in ways you hadn’t imagined you would.

A History of Violence. Because it makes you think during the film and long after.


Movie Smackdown! (Two Reviews for the Price of One) pits one film now out in the theaters against a related film that’s available on DVD… and declares a winner. The films can be related by theme, story, director, writer, actor — the only rule is that there are no ties. To see the complete collection of Movie Smackdown! fights, click here.


Two Reviews for the Price of One

Bryce Zabel is a working screenwriter/producer whose current credits include The Poseidon Adventure and Blackbeard.   He was chairman of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences from 2001-2003.  He maintains two other blogs:  his flagship News! — Views! — & Schmooze! and Instant History.

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  • Matt

    You’re so dumb

  • Mario G. Nitrini 111

    Hi Bryce,

    Forgive me, I left you a Brief Post on Your August 31st, 2005 Article, on some of My Personal Involvement in The OJ Simpson Case.

    My “Eyes” aren’t what they used to me. I addressed you as “Bruce.’ Sorry about that.

    Mario G. Nitrini 111

  • How in the world do all these people think History of Violence had any redeeming qualities?

  • I do LIKE Straw Dogs, too. But in the Smackdown, in my view, it’s bested by the complexity in A History of Violence. Straw Dogs is about the philosphy of a “Just War” in some ways, and that’s fascinating… these are both good films but the challenger wins on points.

  • Can’t speak on Cronenberg — hasn’t played here yet — but I disagree completely about Straw Dogs.

    Far from being simplistic, as you seem to see it, I see it as a film that draws its power from its own stark clarity. It isn’t a matter of just saying David is an egghead squaring off against British louts; rather, it very pointedly asks whether the intelligent, rational approach will save you. David is a typically sane intellectual who has buried his head in the sand. He’s very smug about religion because of wars over religion, and he has also refused to get involved in any political protests. He lives in a world of numbers and proofs and logic. He is a man of the mind, but he’s disconnected from nature — and nature is very much what this new world he has moved into is all about. It’s a world of raw desire and death; his wife understands this perfectly, and so does the local young temptress Jenny (who is trying to emulate her in the first scene of the movie).

    It always bugs me when people say the violence in Straw Dogs is “tame by today’s standards,” because it misses so much of the sheer effect of that movie. That film is an absolute masterwork of direction, and that whole last half-hour — where the embattled David is closed up in his home as he’s attacked by thugs — is almost Shakespearean: it’s as if the he’s in war against nature at its most evil. Any 20 Hollywood hotshots could have ladled out more blood, but the brooding pace of the film and its powerful climax is something no amateur could pull off.

  • Shark

    Straw Dogs presented the thesis that violence is sometimes necessary.

    A History of Violence was ABOUT A WHOLE LOT MORE THAN THAT.