Review: ‘Straw Dogs’

"The violence becomes a real crowd pleaser, but should we be pleased?"

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

I don’t have a problem with remaking Straw Dogs. If they’re going to remake everything, at least they should do a highbrow title, one that can try something that could have a different context today. Straw Dogs does. The ‘70s were all about “how far can you push a man before he erupts into violence.” In 2011, it’s about: the way we treat each other will inevitably lead to violence. So let’s work things out, okay?

If you’re coming in fresh, Straw Dogs is the story of a husband and wife who come to a small town so he can work, in this case the south. David (James Marsden) is a screenwriter working on an intellectual script about Stalingrad. His wife Amy (Kate Bosworth) is an actress who met him on the set of a crime show. Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard) is her former hometown flame who leads the construction team working on their roof.

The point of the intellectual city folks falling victim to a more primal society is still there. That gets worked out with physical violence. To me, it’s filled with emotional violence far more disturbing than the physical. Every interaction these characters have is laced with brutality.

The “friendly” introductions are already veiled threats. It comes down to “we want things done our way.” Charlie wants Amy to bring her old accent back. Amy wants David to eat her traditional food. Charlie wants to start work early and tells David to get used to it, and grudgingly agrees to fulfill the customer’s request to start later. Nobody is even prepared to deal with not getting their way.

David is not innocent though. He’s the most condescending one of all. He throws his money around like he’s doing these poor hicks a favor. I’m a generous tipper but it’s no longer generous when you rub it in their faces. He criticizes the newspaper headlines. Now that’s just mean. You can read your New York Times. Let them have their local rag.

A personal belief in atheism becomes an ego battle. David walks out of a fire and brimstone church sermon. Now that’s just not smart. You can believe what you want, but if you’re in a room full people who believe THEY have the righteous will of God on their side, don’t call attention to yourself. That’s not a very intellectual move, dude.

Amy and David have a really messed up relationship even when things are good. He intellectually taunts her, while she play competes with him, all in the name of “fun.” It’s not fun though. He’s keeping her in her simple minded place and she’s lashing out. And EVERYONE I know in real life does this to each other. So you know when they start discussing body issues and sexual boundaries, neither are coming from a healthy perspective.
 


 

I see people like this and I think there’s no way they’re not going to end up killing each other. This is all with essentially the same plot events as the original movie, but the behavior and motivations maybe subtly updated. Writer/director Rod Lurie builds tension whether you’ve seen the original or not, but you just intuit that this situation is bound to collapse. And you might second guess yourself too. The violence becomes a real crowd pleaser, but should we be pleased?

By the way, True Blood fans, Amy specifically does not invite Charlie in, but since he’s not a vampire he can come in anyway. I thought you might appreciate that.

The most controversial scene of the original Straw Dogs may be a spoiler for the new one if you don’t know. I would say the scene is handled respectfully, encompassing all the emotional issues it involves, and an interesting twist on the ambiguity of the scene. It probably won’t be controversial today but it’s equally relevant to the story.

The siege remains the cathartic release of the past 90 minutes of tense subtext. That sequence was a bit too darkly lit for me. Modern lighting can capture a realistic night shoot but I think we may see it better on Blu-ray. There are a few graphic money shots and squishy sounds, lest some attacks be too implied for you. Marsden plays the hell out of David’s transformation into bloodlust personified.

I think Dominic Purcell was miscast as the mentally challenged Jeremy Niles. Purcell performs it wonderfully but he still looks like a chiseled action hero. Unfortunately, a man like Jeremy could not have worked out into an Adonis body with the limitations he’s living with. Sometimes you just can’t look the part.

I feel this Straw Dogs teaches us both to take responsibility for our role in conflicts, and to recognize when a situation is just too dangerous to involve yourself in. When there’s this much ego involved in each character’s point of view, anyone else is bound to threaten you. And playing along with these antagonists only makes it worse. David tries to do things the southern way but it’s inauthentic so it doesn’t cultivate peace. Sometimes people need to speak up and say, “Hey, I’m not comfortable with this. Let’s not do this.” Dancing around it only simmers the anger hotter.

It’s cool to watch the thrilling climax, but trust me, you do not want your life escalating to this level of violence. Let’s just leave our anger in fiction and learn to be more accepting of others and if someone’s being threatening, just get away from them.