Review: Straw Dogs (2011)
I have a very strained relationship with the works of Sam Peckinpah. On the one hand, the man was a pure cinematic master, capable of capturing extraordinarily beautiful images and tackling challenging themes of masculinity and inhumanity. On the other hand, dude was a drunken brute whose masterful images sometimes celebrated brutality to an uncomfortable degree and who frequently struggled with those challenging themes to the point that he seemed to land on the wrong side of humanity. There are great Peckinpah films and just plain morbidly shocking Peckinpah films, but none seems to exemplify his inner turmoil, both as a filmmaker and as a person, more than his most infuriating work, Straw Dogs.
In the 1971 film, Dustin Hoffman’s David Sumner was the film’s central protagonist…yet also its chief villain. But somehow, the film ends with his satisfied smile, and Peckinpah’s gaze doesn’t seem to recognize that smile with any sinister irony. Meanwhile, David’s wife, Amy (Susan George), is simultaneously a victim and a provocateur, both a casualty of the film’s crippling brutal masculinity and, in a way, an inciter of it. The infamous final showdown between David and the town hooligans is somehow beautiful and ugly all at once, packed with unthinkably brilliant imagery yet fraught with the sort of mixed messaging that is prevalent throughout the entire film. Does Peckinpah acknowledge the base instincts of violent men, or does he mold a celebration of those instincts? Is Straw Dogs a prescient commentary or a shocking representation of the masculinity its characters embody?
Further complicating the conversation is Rod Lurie’s new remake, starring James Marsden as David, Kate Bosworth as Amy, and Alexander Skarsgard as Charlie, Amy’s teenage boyfriend and ringleader of the anti-social hooligan gang. The characters are put through many of the same scenarios in Peckinpah’s original, with less than a handful of moments altered in any significant way. My first inclination walking into a Straw Dogs remake is A) it is totally unnecessary, and B) if it’s directed by Rod Lurie, it will likely feel like even more of an obvious, lunkheaded exploration of Peckinpah’s themes, since subtlety has never been Lurie’s strong suit.
As it turns out, this is Lurie’s most restrained film to date. While Lurie obviously resides on a more liberal side of gender politics than did Peckinpah, he nevertheless maintains a certain faithfulness to the source material, exploring the moral uncertainty without going too far over the top (though Larry Groupe’s score reaches for some classically jarring suspense chords that at once reference the former film as well as Lurie’s occasional heavy-handedness). The approach is interesting, as are a few of the minor tweaks Lurie injects into this modernized version. And yet the end result is every bit as muddled and infuriating as its predecessor, re-casting the story and updating the content without deepening or resolving the underlying subtext. Some would call this ambiguity, but I would posit it actually reveals a war of inward machismo inside its filmmaker – much as the original exposed the war inside Peckinpah – that contributes to a complete lack of thematic clarity.
David is a milquetoast writer and Amy an actress with an undefined past that reveals itself upon their return to her hometown, where they relocate so David can hole up to write his latest opus. Charlie and his gang of hillbilly contractors become a constant source of annoyance for white-collar David, and the cultural divide incites and quickly aggravates a nasty wound of not just lifestyles but social attitudes. Charlie and his gang are obviously backwards, but David is a sissy prig whose inner beast in gradually unleashed. The symbolic acts of violence (the hanging of the cat, etc.) are all present, as is the plot’s ugliest turn, a rape scene that is all kinds of upsetting, and not merely for its content. The conflicting emotions it underlines within its characters revolted me in Peckinpah’s version and are only slightly tempered in Lurie’s remake.
All disparate threads come to a head in the final set piece, a violent showdown in which David reaches his breaking point and defends his “fortress” with a brutal instinct he never realized he had. Lurie curiously leaves out some of the more damning evidence of David’s ultimate villainy, which begs the question of whether he truly wants us to deplore his violent shift. And obviously Lurie isn’t capable of capturing images with the same potency as Peckinpah, though this film does represent his most accomplished directorial effort to date. I actually like Lurie’s final image more so than Peckinpah’s, as it is more sobering and symbolic without being cloying.
Nevertheless, the central conundrum of nature-versus-nurture in a gendered society still remains, and isn’t tackled with any more verisimilitude in 2011 than Peckinpah was able to muster in 1971. It seems to me that even an unabashedly progressive filmmaker like Lurie struggles with the same masculine identity crisis that plagued Peckinpah – really, the same crisis that plagues David Sumner. And so this Straw Dogs, like its cinematic forebear, is an interesting distillation of the gender and culture wars without offering a clear-eyed thematic stance on either. It is endlessly interesting but not ultimately successful.