BLOGS

Straw Dogs: Unleash the Hounds

by Ethan Alter September 16, 2011 6:00 am
<i>Straw Dogs</i>: Unleash the Hounds

Released in 1971, Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs is one of the more controversial entries in that noted provocateur's filmography. No stranger to upsetting audiences -- after all, this was the guy who filmed Hollywood icons William Holden and Ernest Borgnine being shot to bloody pulps at the end of the 1969 Western The Wild Bunch -- Peckinpah pushed the envelope even further in this story of dorky mathematician David (Dustin Hoffman) who is forced to man up and defend his wife Amy (Susan George) and their remote English homestead against a gang of thugs with murder on their minds. But that wasn't the shocking part.

No, what really sparked arguments at the time (and still today) is the extended sequence in which George's character -- who, in the proto-feminist tradition of the early '70s, proudly goes about sans bra -- is raped by her former boyfriend and one of his buddies, both whom will later lead the siege against their house in the film's climax. The act itself is upsetting enough, what with Amy pleading for her ex-lover to stop and him repeatedly slapping her across the face and insisting that she remain still, but even more disturbing is what happens midway through when she stops struggling and even seems to kiss him back. Is she simply in shock and waiting for the ordeal to be over? Or is there some small part of her that's experiencing a spark of passion for her old flame? (Whatever spell she's under is broken as soon as his friend takes over and the tone of the scene turns decidedly horrific.) It's the most disquieting, confusing scene in a movie that's full of mixed messages. Straw Dogs is a frustratingly imperfect film, but those rough edges are what make it so fascinating to revisit even forty years later.

In contrast, it's hard to imagine anyone finding much value in Rod Lurie's new Straw Dogs remake in the far-off future of 2051. While the new version mostly follows the original's narrative beat-for-beat, it feels strangely sanitized, not the least of which in its presentation of the rape sequence, which unfolds at a speedier clip here with far more cut-aways, significantly lessening the raw, disturbing power of the '71 version. (On the other hand, George's replacement Kate Bosworth isn't subjected to the same leering, exploitative camerawork during that scene and elsewhere, which counts as an improvement.) And the obvious changes that have been made -- which include moving the setting from England to the Deep South (thus allowing for some half-hearted Red State vs. Blue State riffs) and changing David's profession from mathematician to screenwriter (apparently the filmmakers were afraid audiences wouldn't buy James Marsden as a numbers wiz) -- don't offer any new insight into the story. It's also a shame that Lurie didn't opt to make the one change that would have resulted in a significant upgrade over the original, dropping a hoary Of Mice and Men-like subplot involving a simple-minded giant (played here by Prison Break's Dominic Purcell) who lights the fuse for the apocalyptic finale when he accidentally kills a young girl. Here's the most telling difference between the two movies: In the '71 version, the title's meaning is never explained. In the '11 version, George and Amy have an extended conversation about what a "straw dog" is and how the term applies to their circumstances. That sums up the state of too many Hollywood products in a nutshell -- they're drowning in a sea of unnecessary exposition that results in too much telling and not enough showing.

What the Straw Dogs remake does have going for it is a pair of strong performance by its leading men. One would think that Marsden's matinee-idol looks would put him at a disadvantage in terms of believably playing a wimp, but this perpetually underrated actor (yes, his Cyclops was disappointing -- he's great in Enchanted and Superman Returns, though) actually does a nice job playing against type. While he's got a beefier frame and more chiseled face than Hoffman, he adopts an awkward demeanor and jittery body language that convinces us of David's spinelessness. It helps that his primary nemesis in the film, Amy's ex-boyfriend and former high school football star Charlie, is played by the towering Alexander Skarsgård, who embodies the alpha-male personality (to say nothing of body type) that David lacks. Skarsgård's role can't exactly be called complex, but he's a magnetic screen presence; it's not at all hard to understand why Amy hooked up with him back in the day and why she still has trouble pushing him away. As for Bosworth, much like George before her, she's almost an afterthought in this pitched battle between übermensch and underdog. One of the problems with Straw Dogs in both of its incarnations is that Amy's wants and desires are treated as secondary to what the male characters demand from her. She's a pawn in their game, not a woman with her own agency.

By the time we get to the home invasion, the audience is primed for a bit of the old ultraviolence and Lurie responds accordingly, dishing out pain with such low-tech weapons as a nail gun, boiling oil and a bear trap. Again, the majority of David's battle tactics in this sequence come straight out of Peckinpah's playbook and while the bloodshed is slicker here, it's nowhere near as stark and brutal as it was the first time around. The '71 Straw Dogs forces viewers to contemplate whether David had become a hero or lost his soul. This one is all too happy to leave us thinking that you're not really a man until you smash a bear trap over some other dude's head.

Get the scoop on the novel that inspired Straw Dogs and check out five other movies you may not have known were based on books.

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