Conflict is king when it comes to writing screenplays. While conflict must be present in every scene, only a few scenes in a film can really let the conflict escalate to the point of screaming, shouting and cursing. When those scenes do occur, often at the end of the second act, they are as thrilling to write as they are to watch.
Probably the most passionate arguments happen between lovers because many deep emotions like jealously, fear and the need to control, all play out inside romantic relationships. But power struggles can exist in any relationship and the following scenes are proof.
An argument really dazzles when it’s between two equally strong characters, especially if it makes the audience truly question who the victor will be. Great writers like Quentin Tarantino add humor to the most vitriolic arguments, but sometimes, a physical gesture or an act of violence is just as powerful as what’s being said.
Here are our top ten most gripping movie arguments.
10. A Streetcar Named Desire
As Stanley Kowalski, Marlon Brando doesn’t need a lot of words to get his brutish point across when Stella (Kim Hunter) and Blanche (Vivian Leigh) insult him at the dinner table. If you watch his performance closely, there are moments when you can easily tell he modeled his physical behavior after a gorilla. Like most alpha males, Stanley uses few words and shows his dominance through his physicality.
9. War of the Roses
We love this scene because despite Oliver (Michael Douglas) telling Barbara (Kathleen Turner) to “Go ahead, smash my face in,” it seems highly unlikely that she’ll do it. Catharsis comes when she does sock him in the jaw. If you want to show true hatred between two characters, have them be married to each other.
8. The Big Lebowski
Early on in the movie, we know Walter (John Goodman) has a very short fuse, possibly because of PTSD he suffers from his time fighting in Vietnam. But when the rules aren’t strictly followed at the bowling alley, Walter goes nuclear in the most hilarious way possible. Even the little yappy dog adds tension when Walter describes entering “a world of pain.”
7. Kramer Vs. Kramer
There’s nothing pretty about divorce and this scene brings out the worst in Ted (Dustin Hoffman) when Joanna (Meryl Streep) tells him she wants her son back. Because they were in a restaurant, Hoffman knew he couldn’t verbally explode with anger so instead, he used a glass to make his point, terrifying Streep in real life.
6. Pulp Fiction
Samuel L. Jackson was born to play Jules, the righteous mob hit man. In his mind, he’s doing the Lord’s work – assuming the Lord doesn’t mind all the F-bombs he throws out. Frightening, funny yet powerful, here’s an actor who can really use his voice to intimidate.
5. Raging Bull
Both Jake (Robert De Niro) and his wife Vickie (Cathy Moriarty) are really strong characters, physically and mentally. Both are fearless and that’s what causes the fireworks between them, proving there’s a very thin line between love and hate.
4. Do the Right Thing
This highly stylized morality tale about culture clash illustrates how an explosion can begin with the tiniest spark. The African-American teens from the neighborhood want to see black people on Sal’s (Danny Aiello) wall of fame. For the teens, adding photos of black people means black people matter in the community. But Sal doesn’t want to give up his own worldview where, in his opinion, all the right people are represented on his wall of fame. Between the sweltering heat and loud rap music, hate speech and violence prevails.
This scene is brutal to watch, but the physical violence really underscores the emotional violence Evelyn (Faye Dunaway) has been through. This scene is thick with shame, anger and sexual tension – the way all the best arguments between characters should be.
2. There Will Be Blood
Though we’re still not exactly sure what the phrase, “I drink your milkshake” means, it’s a genius piece of writing, not to mention acting. There’s a perverse delight in watching Daniel Day-Lewis torment Paul Dano with bowling balls. This scene is uniquely frightening and delicious. Funnily enough, this is the second bowling alley scene on the list.
1. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
In real life, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were married (and divorced) twice no doubt teaching them how to fight like pros. As George and Martha, they know exactly how to push each other’s buttons. On this night, however, their argument turns savage as Martha goes for blood.
Shanee Edwards graduated from UCLA Film School with an MFA in Screenwriting and is currently the film critic for SheKnows.com. She recently won the Next MacGyver television writing competition to create a TV show about a female engineer. Her pilot, Ada and the Machine, is currently in development with America Ferrera’s Take Fountain Productions. You can follow her on Twitter: @ShaneeEdwards
Photo credit: Warner Bros.