Monday, October 3, 2011

Straw Dogs

Sam Peckinpah was a pretty controversial Hollywood figure during his prime in the 60s and 70s. His movies often featured disturbing content, not-very-likeable anti-heroes, graphic violence, and quite often a scene (or scenes) of rape. The guy really had some demons to sort out, and he most often did it on the big screen. Some of his more prominent works include The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrent and Billy the Kid - but one he's just as vilified for is Straw Dogs. Originally released in 1971 with Dustin Hoffman in the lead - Straw Dogs remains just about as controversial as the day it was released. Exactly 40 years later, Straw Dogs hit theaters again as a remake. So how does it stack up to the original?


The story is fairly simple. Husband and wife David (James Marsden) and Amy Sumner (Kate Bosworth) move back to Amy's home town of Blackwater, Mississippi to tend to her recently deceased father's affairs. David, a screenwriter, also hopes to use the time in the countryside as an opportunity to get some writing done and Amy seems eager to reconnect with her roots. At first, all seems fairly well - if quaint, and for the most part the citizens of the small town are largely friendly to the two "city folks." But Amy's previous relationship with Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard) seems to generate tension in their marriage. And while I hate to use such vulgar shorthand here, the only thing to say at that point is "things just go downhill from there."

On the plus side - both films explore the same themes thoroughly. The old argument of "violence never solves anything" is the most obvious lesson on the menu, with various "sub-themes" occasionally explored - things like the balance and flow of power in the Sumner marriage, definitions of masculinity as embodied through violence, etc. The film expresses its message in a fairly transparent way - and simple devices like intercutting between concurrent events to juxtapose them against each other are used appropriately.

For the most part each performance is adequate, though this movie does make the mistake of assuming that all Southern accents are largely the same - so even though the film takes place in Mississippi, one hears Texas accents, Floridian accents, etc. It's not overly long, in fact it clocks in at almost the exact length of the original. The pacing of the film is fairly even, and the flow of events is organized in a logical way. This is not a hard movie to follow in the first place, but it's worth noting as a positive at any rate.


As far as the negative side goes, there's not a whole lot to be said about the film that hasn't already been hashed and rehashed about the original. It's a dark movie, and it's got its fair share of disturbing content.

One drawback that I personally found a bit distracting was James Marsden's physique. He's playing a bookish, pacifist, "mousy" sort of fellow who eventually gets pushed to a breaking point. (Think Dustin Hoffman circa 1971 - ...oh wait...) But Marsden has both the classic movie-star good looks and bulk of someone who could probably hold his own in a fight anyway. So when the inevitable siege of their farm house begins and David "snaps," it doesn't seem to stand in stark contrast to anything but his demeanor before. That's not to say Marsden's performance is inadequate, but he was cast against type and the brunt of the film's message is lost over that.

The other thing about the film that didn't quite live up to my expectations was how "on-the-nose" the whole thing was. In an interview about the film, James Woods (who plays the short-tempered Coach Heddon) remarked "We're painting in broad strokes with this film. And that's the fun of it: it's not a subtle movie." Eh...yes and no. While the topics explored warrant a certain measure of "broad strokes," there's still something to be said about the ways in which Peckinpah managed to nuance the violence in his original with more than just pure catharsis. There are hints early in both films that indicate that David is the kind to eventually snap, but Peckinpah's film managed to obscure some of those hints a little better. The 2011 remake lays everything right out in the open, and even movie-goers with no "formal education" in film analysis will pick up on what's being communicated.


Straw Dogs isn't a total strikeout, but it's not exactly a home run. It succeeds in being a strong remake - in taking the prescient elements of the original, updating them a bit, and remolding them adequately, but the original is still better. That's by far more often the rule rather than the exception, regardless.

The other thing that struck me about the film was how...not unsettling it was. Now, this may have more to do with my own desensitization to violence than with the content of the movie itself. I found the rape scene just as unsavory as the original - if not more so - which was a good gut check for my sense of propriety. But when the big siege of the Sumner home begins, all I could do was root for David and revel in the glory of his retribution. Again, maybe that's just me. But I think a lot of it had to do with the way the film was framed - where lines of black and white were more starkly drawn than the original...again kinda going back to the whole broad strokes thing. If the purpose of the movie is to enjoy the catharsis of watching David finally fight back and give those racist backwards rednecks what they deserved, then the film succeeds. But if we're to take writer/director Rod Lurie at his word (and by extension, Peckinpah as well) then the point was to emphasize David's descent into unforgivable savagery. The film ultimately fails if that is its goal, and instead glorifies the violent climax. I've always enjoyed a good retribution flick, so I don't personally have a problem with that glorification of violence and the much-needed catharsis at the end (especially after the rape scene). But maybe that's my problem.

Ultimately, Straw Dogs is one you can afford to miss. You probably won't regret seeing it, if you know what you're going into. But if you don't get around to seeing the remake, the original still packs a better punch anyway.

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