The Way We Do Things Around Here
“That’s the way we do things around here. You’ll get used to it.” This sounds like a threat when Charlie (Alexander Skarsgård) says it near the beginning of Straw Dogs. And David (James Marsden) knows it. “Here” is the odiously named Blackwater, Mississippi, hometown of David’s wife Amy (Kate Bosworth). She’s got a bit of history there, unknown to her city-boy husband. Learning it means getting used to it.
Rod Lurie’s remake Sam Peckinpah’s still-disturbing 1971 original opens on David and Amy hauling into town in a vintage Jaguar. Her father has just died, leaving her the family farm—as well as a Zydeco collection and a bear trap—and they’ve arrived from LA. Back home, David is a screenwriter and she’s an actor, her TV series recently cancelled (“I saw you on that show,” her former classmates tell her, the guys all sounding indecent as they say it). He’s hoping the quiet in the “cradle of [Amy’s] youth” will help him complete his latest overdue project, a movie about the Battle of Stalingrad: when Amy tries to show off her husband and describe it to a local waitress, he corrects her, earning a look of resentment from his wife that suggests they’ve got problem already simmering.
These have to do with their different senses of her history: she wants to learn chess and be book-smart, he appreciates that she’s beautiful. He’s increasingly discomfited, though, that, much as he’s confident in his cuteness, she’s also aware of and willing to exploit her frankly stunning body. The film makes clear you get the threat this poses—to David and also to Amy.
As she jogs daily in the heat, her shorts short and her breasts braless. Charlie, her high school boyfriend, can’t help but leer at her, along with his buddies, now a construction crew. Hired by David to fix the roof on the barn, this foursome shows up each morning in their pickup truck, then proceed to blast Lynard Skynard, sweat, and drink beers, when they’re not watching Amy. Following one of these encounters, she confronts David, insisting the guys were practically licking my body outside.” When David suggests she wear a bra, she’s beside herself, that is, she sits on the kitchen counter and cuts up a peach with a knife, the slices orange and juicy in her mouth. He backtracks (“You look amazing!”) but then thinks out loud she could be “a little more modest.” Apparently, not being modest has helped her to 1) get out of Blackwater, 2) be on TV, and 3) snag David, so you can guess why she’s not only confused but also mad at the uncomprehending David.
At the same time, the film allows that David has His Own Issues. Namely, he’s aware that the rednecks think he’s unmanly and he imagines (based on their interactions now) that Amy had scary sex with Charlie when she was a cheerleader and he played football. If he can acknowledge that being a movie writer isn’t the most manly of occupations, he is inclined to point out that Amy’s married to him whenever he gets the chance. And so, as the worker boys judge David repeatedly—their view and his self-consciousness underscored by close-ups of his house slippers slipping on the ladder rungs and his face undone whenever he sees Amy and Charlie exchanging glances—he’s apt to judge Amy, sometimes out loud. Husband and wife soon begin to argue in earnest, their tensions based in mutual ignorance (he doesn’t know she’s stood in the open window and undressed for Charlie and company, and she doesn’t know the guys almost get him killed in a road accident).
Ignorance does tend to get you in trouble in the movies. But the context for this movie is different from that of the first Straw Dogs—along with other films of its moment, like The Last House on the Left (1972), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), or Peckinpah’s own Wild Bunch (1969)—in that the war in Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement were making nightly newscasts in the U.S. disturbing in all kinds of ways, making it hard to be a white man who was paying attention.
American cultural and political contexts today are also disturbing, in different ways, the Tea Party—however cynical or manufactured it may be—being only the most visible incarnation of current white male anxieties. Save for the sheriff (Laz Alonso), the town’s token black man and Iraq war veteran (mocked by the bad white boys and disrespected by the overtly racist Coach, played by James Woods in a remarkable straw cap), the folks in Blackwater seems sick with these anxieties. And so they take dead aim at David because he’s rich (the waitress can’t take plastic, only “Cash, that stuff poor people use for money”), pretty (Coach calls him a “cream puff”), and he thinks he’s “too good for God.” He’s also stupid, and that makes you mad at him too. When the villains devise to torment David by taking him “hunting,” he agrees. He thinks he can learn “the way we do things around here” and not be implicated, that he might remain distanced and feel superior.
Of course, he can’t. But the film finds a way to blame not only him, and the sweaty men he wants to be and fears at the same time, but also, emphatically, the women who make the men this way. In addition to Amy, who is brutally abused for her self-displays, Straw Dogs offers another girl in need of a reckoning, Coach’s daughter Janice (Willa Holland), the cheerleader Amy used to be, acting out in just the same way. To show how bad she is and how bad Amy used to be, the film lingers on her efforts to seduce Jeremy (Dominic Purcell), the local guy who’s “slow,” and is attractive to her because he’s not her father and her father hates him.
Like Amy, Janice is disciplined. So you’re sure these consequences are linked, the movie intercuts Janice’s punishment with Amy’s flashbacks of her most recent injury, all as the Friday night football game provides smashing-bashing-crunching sound effects. It’s a tedious sequence, too obvious, too judgmental, and too redundant. The boys become men and the girls suffer, because you know, that’s the way we do things around here.