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Product of the Times: An Analysis of Rod Lurie’s Remake of Straw Dogs

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I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the recent spate of remakes to hit theaters, but I still am hesitant when any remake is announced.  When it was revealed that director Rod Lurie would be remaking Sam Peckinpah’s controversial 1971 thriller Straw Dogs I was floored!  The original Straw Dogs had so much story and layers bound up in the time period in which it was released that it would never pack the same punch in 2011!  As I watched the remake I found myself applauding Rod Lurie for making this movie relevant to the current times, just as relevant to the original.  A film about a man finding his strength opens up to reveal far more than expected.

 

Both movies follow the same plot.  Mild mannered David Sumner moves with his gorgeous wife Amy to her hometown.  Once there Amy runs into her old boyfriend Charlie and David is instantly intimidated.  Feeling like Amy might still be interested in him, Charlie and his crew starts to push David around.  When things take a turn for the dangerous and Charlie’s crew turn violent, David will have to find his courage to protect his house and wife.

I mentioned above my fear that a remake of Straw Dogs in 2011 wouldn’t pack the same punch.  It’s due to the fact that the original film was wound up in the goings-on of the 1970s.  The film looks at the concept of masculinity and the animal inside man, which was an issue facing men when this movie came out (during the height of the Vietnam War).  Dustin Hoffman as David in the original was a pacifist who abhorred violence, yet Sam Peckinpah’s film emphasized that even a pacifist must resort to violence at some point, especially in order to assert his dominance and masculinity.  The original does have a somewhat misogynistic message, itself a response to Peckinpah’s views on the feminist movement, but again that was a sign of the times.

To diverge, the original has to be seen in Blu, there’s no other option.  I have a crappy Blockbuster DVD copy of the original film from the last release (which up until this Blu-Ray was out of print) and it has a grainy transfer and a general gray shadow that makes every scene look gloomy and dark.  The new Blu-Ray may not boast any bonus features but the picture looks gorgeous!  The colors pop, there’s no gray wash and the grain is non-existent.  Straw Dogs (1971) should be used to show people why they need a Blu-Ray player because it’s amazing.

The 2011 remake’s biggest change comes from the move in location.  The original had David and Amy move to an unnamed English town where everyone seemed to be hiding a secret.  The general ambiance of the film was reminiscent of The Wicker Man; there was some dark malevolence that was unspoken.  It never panned out in the original because there was no overarching darkness, but it made the town seem even more macabre and backward.

The remake takes the story back to American and the Deep South, namely Blackwater, Mississippi.  Here football is worshipped religiously with a scene where a priest blesses the football team during the service and the backward feeling comes from the stereotypical notion of the redneck or hillbilly, which the characters mention to David time and again.  Instead of going for that easy separation to make you feel Charlie and his friends are evil from the get-go, Lurie shows their distance in terms of economic and social difference.  David opens the film driving a beautiful (and expensive) 1967 Jaguar while everyone else in the town drives a truck or compact car.  It’s also alluded to that David went to a fancy school.  The people of Blackwater don’t have the same type of education, with Charlie wearing a torn University of Tennessee shirt as the only acknowledgment that he advanced out of high school, even then it didn’t help as he’s working as a roofer.  The audience ends up feeling bad for the townspeople because it’s easy to see why they’d feel David is looking down on them.

The biggest improvement is in the sense of community established by the setting.  The original again had that culture clash, but also a fear of the unknown because apparently English people are frightening.  Here Amy explains the sense of trust, that nobody locks their doors and everyone trusts each other.  The entire reason people move to the suburbs is for that sense of community, something Amy says she misses.  Amy herself is seen as the golden child, not returning after failing as an actress, but as returning home to show everyone in the town that they can make it to!  Even the title of the film emphasizes the fact that Charlie and his gang peaked in high school and are left falling back on the community and nothing else.

The character of Amy is where Lurie and his script excel as Amy is a full-fledged character.  Susan George in the original was extremely child-like, hyper sexualized, and a weakling.  It’s been argued that her character is merely the female in a herd of men, being passed around and relying on any man that can offer her protection.  The rape scene in the 1971 original even has Amy asking her rapist to hold her, the female animal asking for comfort from the alpha male.  Lurie removes all of that and makes Amy a modern woman of 2011.  Amy stands up for her beliefs, berating the drunken ex-football coach Tom Hedden (James Woods) for beating up a mentally challenged man.

Peckinpah’s choice to have Amy unknowingly walk around without a bra and flash the male workers seemed exploitative and cemented Amy’s childishness.  In this version Amy flat out asks David why she needs to wear a bra in order to gain respect, “am I asking for it?”  When Amy decides to flash her chest to Charlie and his friends it’s an act of defiance.  It’s saying “you’ve seen me now the fantasy is shattered.”  It doesn’t work as she expects as the film unfolds, but it allows Amy to assert her dominance and control.  At times Amy is more masculine than David, a sore point which makes David’s break into violence at the end all the more poignant.

The rape scene in this film is also handled with care and subtly.  The exploitation and titillation of the original is removed along with the ambiguity of Amy possibly enjoying the sex as stated about the original.  Here Amy doesn’t flash on how her husband will feel about this; she looks at pictures of her as a child.  Her childhood, innocence, and trust about the town are forever shattered.  She feels that everything good about Blackwater and the house is gone, that the sense of community she once felt is non-existent.  It’s also interested how Charlie is depicted in the rape.  In 1971 Charlie and Amy have some banter before he turns violent; here Charlie is forceful from the get-go.  Towards the end though you start to understand his logic and it’s where the one moment of ambiguity arrives.  After the act Charlie asks Amy what’s wrong and has a look of horror on his face.  Up until this point the audience has wondered if Charlie has been playing head games with David, implying Amy may still have feelings for him.  After the rape Charlie realizes Amy truly wasn’t interested in him.  The audience is left to ask if this is a case of signals getting crossed or not.  It’s handled expertly and truly improves on the original.

It all bubbles to the surface during the film’s final minutes as Charlie and his crew decided to siege the house.  Both films maintain the “storming of the castle” type imagery with the stone house and the obvious element of raping the queen to get to the king.  Adding to that though is the sense of two alpha males competing for the same territory.  There are a slew of penis references throughout this movie but it culminates with Charlie maiming, then blowing up David’s expensive car, an obvious joke about the fact that fancy cars are compensating for something else.  When Charlie finally gets into the house the movie has a great shot of Charlie standing over a crawling David.  The way actor Alexander Skarsgard is portrayed throughout the film is as a gorgeous Adonis.  Yes Skarsgard is great to look at but in the final scene his shirt’s hanging off him exposing the virility and masculinity that any girl would want and any guy would aspire to.  The cringing David on the floor, scrounging for his glasses looks like the guy no one wants.  When the power shifts at the end it’s not because David looks any different or has lost his nebbish qualities, it’s that he’s finally found what it takes to be a man in this decade.  It’s not looking great, but being able to protect one’s home with ingenuity and a reliance on self-defense.

The original is a product of the time, but so is Rod Lurie’s remake.  The original had a pacifist trying to come to grips with violence during a time when young men were dying in the jungles and being spit on once they arrived home.  In 2011 we may still be in a war, but it’s nothing in regards to the war fought at home.  The war for the best car, the best girl, and just the constant yearning to make life better when you have limited means.  The definition of masculinity is different for everyone but in this version it’s not who can be violent, but who can rise above the violence and come out the other side while coping with the regret and guilt.  Two solid films more than worth seeing and understanding as products of their times.

Author: Kristen Lopez, Editor in Chief

Kristen Lopez is the editor-in-chief of CC2K and a freelance pop culture essayist. Her work has appeared on Roger Ebert, The Hollywood Reporter, and The Daily Beast. When she’s not burning down Film Twitter she runs two podcasts, the female-centric film show Citizen Dame, and the classic film-themed Ticklish Business.

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