[15 September 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
After an amazing ‘60s which saw him temporarily steal the conversation away from the Italians and redefine the Western with The Wild Bunch, renegade director Sam Peckinpah stumbled into the ‘70s with a creative carte blanche that few filmmakers ever enjoy. He was beloved and berated. With said status secure, he choose to make some of his most interesting and complex movies of his entire career, from more subtle and surreal oaters (The Ballad of Cable Hogue, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid) to mainstream hits (The Getaway). Even his bristly personality and occasional studio loggerheads couldn’t dull his diffuse muse (alcohol, on the other hand…).
One of the most notorious of his latter efforts, Straw Dogs (new to Blu-ray from MGM), centered around a weak-willed mathematician (Dustin Hoffman) who travels to his English wife Amy’s (Susan George) hometown hoping to escape the troubles in a Vietnam War torn USA. Instead, he faces violence and brutality from a predatory populace eager to make the Yank pay for his perceived self-righteousness and passivity. The subtext, laced with a confrontational conceit toward principles and practice, appeared to champion bloodshed and debasement as the means of making the meek into a man. With the inclusion of a pedophilic character being (unknowingly) protected by the couple, the message came across loud and clear - brawn bests brains every time.
Now, critic and investigative reporter turned filmmaker Rod Lurie is revisiting Peckinpah’s controversial thriller with a turgid take on the harrowing rape/revenge original. In his version, James Marsden is a slightly smug (and supposedly successful) screenwriter who brings his trophy actress wife Kate Bosworth back to her muggy Mississippi home town. More Last House on the Left than Virgin Spring, this update wants to be as volatile as the original while treading on territory explored (better) by exploitation classics such as I Spit on Your Grave. While almost a note for note update of the original, Lurie wants to show how out of step a certain segment of our society really is. All he really does is preach to the already perverted.
By switching the location to the South, and offering up characters who believe in God and football as religiously as they do the rebel flag and the supremacy of a loaded shotgun, Lurie wants to argue for that classic clash of cultures - the smart vs. the stunted, the civilized vs. the sadistic. While his paint strokes are a tad less obvious than Peckinpah’s - meaning few of the baddies here twirl their imaginary villainous moustaches in slobbering glee - the filmmaking is far from perfect. In fact, one would have to argue that while Peckinpah had politics - national and gender - on his mind when he made his movie, Lurie just has a few pretty faces.
For Hoffman’s David Sumner, life is all about logic. He is a scholar, someone who works with numbers, and can’t acknowledge the role passion and fire play inside people. They have no place in his process. It’s written all over his bland button down facade. His wife, young but newly ‘liberated’ by the times, can’t stand her husband’s demands of traditional roles. She wants to be free - but also secure in her desire for risk. She also has an attachment to the people from her past that will come back to haunt both her and the audience. Indeed, the biggest shift between Straw Dogs 1971 and its forty years in the making update is the changes in Amy. In the original, George gives her a kicky cheek and an ambivalent reaction to her horrific attack. Now, our heroine is a less than effectual shrew who browbeats her beleaguered husband, even as he systematically slaughters every one of his enemies.
This new Straw Dogs is like an implied treatise on Robert Bly. It’s an argument against the sensitive male and for a return to the more macho, Neanderthal notions of hunting and gathering. Ironically, David is drawing up a script about one of the biggest and bloodiest battles in all of WWII history - the Nazi/Russian standoff at Stalingrad. Yet as he meticulously charts every soldier and every kill scenario, he clearly misses the bigger picture - the struggle and sacrifice to survive. It takes the shooting of a deer, and the defense of an injured individual, to finally make him “man” up. For Peckinpah, the arguments are more esoteric. His David wants to hide in formulas and books, to avoid taking a stand and watching his hallowed ivory towers crumble under significant student unrest. His denouement isn’t about being a hero so much as to recognize the need to crawl outside a cubicle and face the world head on.
Because it is more detached and distant from its context, the original Straw Dogs often plays like an exploitation exercise vamped up by experts both in front of and behind the camera. Hoffman is amazing, and George gives off the perfect end of the ‘60s cyanide swing. As he did with gore, Peckinpah dissects and distributes a knotty level of tension and suspense. His color scheme may have shifted from blood red to ghastly white (that is, until the end), but his control is all expertise and exactitude. Even with knowing where the narrative is going, this fascinating filmmaker keeps us guessing. Lurie has no such control. His film is like a 100 minute set-up for a predictable payoff. We can see the set-pieces being prepared well in advance. We know the local yokels are going to suffer for their savagery - it’s just a matter of sitting through all the New Age nonsense and Southern Gothic gratuity to get there.
It’s the difference between visceral and being the victim. Peckinpah plots to unleash the demons of Hell once push comes to splattery shove. His David will finally ‘do.” Lurie likens his couple to a ditz dragged into the wrong place and the wrong time. His hero goes Voorhees because the script says he should. In both cases, an insular universe of vigilantism and self-structured morality take the place of anything remotely resembling reality. In 1971, that was conceivable. In 2011, it plays like a near lampoon.
Certainly there are regions below the metered Mason Dixon line where cliquish, clannish rednecks wipe their brow with a cold frosty brew while lining up their latest victim - animal or human - in their gleaming gun sights. It may be a new millennium, but mankind has changed very little in the last 2000 years. The first Straw Dogs suggested activism and anarchy as curatives to the world’s ills. While horrific and harrowing, it was the way of the species. Now, said message has been reduced to a slick snuff film self-defense.