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.
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.
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.