I described Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 version of Straw Dogs as visceral, disturbing, and unpleasant, and without a doubt, those same qualities apply to Rod Lurie’s 2011 remake. What surprises me is that this new version is far more agreeable, in large part because, while the basic story is exactly the same, the subtexts have been altered in such a way that they’re far more compelling. The original was essentially an extended metaphor for male chauvinism, the idea that what a man says goes; the controversial violent climax and the ambiguous rape scene had misogynistic undertones I simply didn’t approve of. The new film broadens the scope a bit, making it not about gender roles but about social status. Many passages of dialogue are taken almost verbatim from the original screenplay, and yet the shift in focus allows the words to take on new meaning. The result is a film that’s endlessly fascinating and indisputably frightening.
Adapted from Gordon Williams’ novel The Siege of Trencher’s Farm, the film changes the location from the English countryside to the American Deep South, specifically the town of Blackwater, Mississippi. This would be the hometown of an actress named Amy Sumner (Kate Bosworth), who has just returned with her husband, David (James Marsden), a Hollywood screenwriter. He’s looking forward to the peace and quiet so that he can finish his latest work, a World War II drama about the Battle of Stalingrad. They move into the estate once owned by Amy’s father; it’s quaint, in a historical kind of way, but the adjacent garage has fallen into disrepair. Hired to fix the roof are four beer-drinking, loud-mouthed locals, one of whom is Amy’s ex, Charlie Venner (Alexander Skarsgård).
The tension between David and Charlie builds slowly but surely, first with subtle glances and phrases. This, in turn, leads to a building of tension between David and Amy. The situation gains momentum when the Sumners’ cat is found strangled and hanging from the light switch in their bedroom closet. Surely the culprit was Charlie or one of his cronies. The issue is that David and Amy have very different ideas about how to find out; David, basically a coward, tries to befriend them with only the hope that one of them will confess, while Amy enters the room with a bowl of milk, calling for the cat. Unlike the original film, their fighting does not boil down to assigned roles in a domestic partnership – or, more accurately, Amy’s role as a housewife. This change in character is crucial, especially during the rape scene. No, it isn’t easy to watch. But I can assure you that this time, there’s no doubt that she means no when she says it.
What it actually does boil down to is a class conflict. David is a Harvard graduate, a history buff, in command of the English language, an atheist, and a Hollywood success story. He never directly states it, but it’s clear he believes he’s superior to the people of Blackwater – conservative, God-fearing, football-watching, blue-collar stereotypes, some of whom may or may not have advanced as far as high school. It’s not that he wants Amy to be a submissive housewife, as was the case in the original film; it’s that he wants her to turn her back on her Southern roots, to be more “sophisticated.” If she had the fortitude to move to Hollywood and make a name for herself, if she could actually fall in love with an educated man like David, then she’s obviously better than the locals. He believes Charlie and his boys wouldn’t stare at her so lecherously if she would just wear a bra while jogging. In other words, she would be left alone if she classed herself up a bit.
As in the original film, all leads to a brutal, bloody confrontation, David having barricaded himself in his home from Charlie, his boys, and the town drunk and high school football coach, Tom Heddon (James Woods). David has custody of a mentally challenged man named Jeremy Niles (Dominic Purcell), who has a history of sexual deviance – pedophilia, in all likelihood – and has been seen in the company of Tom’s flirtatious teenage daughter, Janice (Willa Holland). I will not reveal how he came to be in David’s house. I will say that his protection of Jeremy has absolutely nothing to do with saving his life; it has everything to do with proving that, by virtue of his ability to take control, he’s the better man.
But is he really? “I will not allow violence against this house,” he says to Amy, which is admirable … except for the fact that he “prevents” it by unleashing a primal rage that borders on the homicidal. In truth, he could have prevented it by not involving himself with Jeremy, with whom he had no personal connection. What I appreciated about the final sequence was that it wasn’t about trying to prove his wife wrong, as was the case in Peckinpah’s film; it was about social stature, the egotistical belief that some people are innately inferior to others. Marsden’s final line of dialogue reflects this attitude. It was spoken in the original film, but the context has been revised, and it’s now far more chilling than when it was delivered by Dustin Hoffman. What we ultimately learn from Straw Dogs, apart from the title’s meaning, is that some people are capable of the unthinkable, even if they don’t know that they are.
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