“Straw Dogs” | a film review by Gary Chew
“Heaven and earth are ruthless, and treat the myriad creatures as straw dogs; the sage is ruthless, and treats the people as straw dogs.” — Lao Tzu
I saw Sam Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs” first run. It blew me out of the theater. I’m not a devotee of violent movies. Then I read a review of it by the vaunted film critic, Pauline Kael. She called it “America’s first fascist film.”
Way back in 1971, I thought, “How could that be, Ms. Kael? The bad guys lose!”
Then carefully reexamining my reaction to “Straw Dogs,” I understood why she made that judgment. It was that I “enjoyed” the payback inflicted on the bad guys. That must be why, when one strongly believes he or she is in the right about something (whether right or not), it’s not as difficult to not feel bad about assaulting the “person in the wrong.”
Fascistic resolve is one of the stronger examples of The Fundamentally Determined Mind.
Without a cautious sense of self, seeing “Straw Dogs” 1971, and now “Straw Dogs” 2011, this raw, viscerally vicious story may be harmful to one’s psychic health. I “liked” the older film… as well as this almost carbon copy remake by the fine director and screenwriter, Rod Lurie. Lurie also directed “The Contender” (2000) and “Nothing But the Truth” (2008).
For again, while watching new “Dogs,” I reveled in the clasping-shut of that giant bear trap I’d seen snap to in the ’71 version, which I mention only opaquely for those who haven’t seen old or new “Dogs.” To describe the feeling one gets experiencing the snapping-shut of the large, toothful steel trap, one must lose, for at least a moment, one’s good sense of civility.
But that’s “what’s good” about either “Straw Dog” you have on the leash.
The story comes from a novel by Gordon S. Williams, titled, “The Siege of Trencher’s Farm.” Sam Peckinpah and David Zelag Goodman wrote the screenplay for old “Dogs.” Director Lurie and Goodman wrote the new “Dogs” script.
Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs,” along with his mighty Western, “The Wild Bunch” is on my Great Cinema Hit List. I still think about “Dogs” and “Bunch.” Such legs the two have had for me across the years.
What makes new “Dogs” more creepy is that it’s set in the backwoods of the American South, not rural England. In old “Dogs,” Dustin Hoffman played an intellectual expatriot from the US, ducking what was going down back home due to those Vietnam adventures of ours. New “Dogs” has James Marsden (Stillwater, OK born and seen in “Death at a Funeral”) in the role with the same name, David Sumner. This David is, to quote Spiro T. Agnew, an “effete snob,” too. His lovely wife Amy was played, then, by Susan George, and now, by the Nicole Simpsonish Kate Bosworth (“Blue Crush,” “21.”)
Reminiscent of “The Big Chill,” Amy is a reasonably well-known TV actor, back with David for a respite in her hometown of Blackwater, Mississippi. He’s deep into doing serious writing about Russians kicking German butt at Stalingrad. (A reason to suspect he’s a devout leftie?) Amy’s also refurbishing their home that sits a few miles outside Blackwater. It’s hard to get a cell phone signal at the place. The residence looks a lot like the stone two-story David and Amy/1971 were taking r&r in.
Earlier, the couple’s Mississippi barn was damaged by a hurricane, so David commissions four local straw dogs to rebuild it. It’s a bunch who, if their collective necks were any redder, would have shirt collars that waft smoke.
Big, tall and handsome Charlie (Alexander Skarsgård, “Big Love“) has more repressed hate than the rest of his buds, albeit all have a predilection for pool cue pugilism. Charlie is also an old high school flame of Amy’s. Ouch! She doesn’t wear much around the property when jogging, not even a bra under her tee shirt. (Just like old “Dogs”*).
The barn-building bunch outside the big stone house opines David to be a pussy. They jive him in their good old boy Southern way, but internally seethe for his subtle, friendly arrogance. David really isn’t a pussy, even though, as the film gets underway, it’s difficult to see. He’s a nice guy; into jazz and classical music. David works-out in a Harvard tee-shirt jumping rope Then, there’s this historical tome he writing. And also, in a bright-lights kind of way, Amy’s husband is a Hollywood scriptwriter.
The town locals at the bar, led by former high school coach, Tom Heddon (same name, different occupation from old “Dogs’), are even more bellicose than the barn-fixers. James Woods (“The Virgin Suicides”) is close to overboard in his reading of the coach, but Heddon’s motivation is the engine of new “Straw Dogs.”
A reflection of the fine English actor, Peter Vaughn, should be given here. He was indelibly well-cast as the “enginizing” Mr. Heddon in the Peckinpah picture. As written, a character easy to hate.
For those who’ve seen neither film, nothing more should be told. But let your mind rest, a moment, on what kinds of motivations various characters might conjure in their heads, given what’s already been mentioned.
The film locks and loads, tightening the spring even more, as a mentally disturbed young man of Blackwater, known to “fiddle” with younger girls, comes under suspicion for an event that, on the face of it, seems heinous. The young man is Jeremy. He’s played by Dominic Purcell.
A couple of comparative observations: Old “Dogs” put Peckinpah in hot water with feminists of the day for depicting males ghastly demeaning a female character, somewhat like that done to Hilary Swank’s character in “Boys Don’t Cry.” Lurie does make it less explicit in his new “Dogs,” but it’s still integral to the script. That could be a reason some may wish to avoid old “Dogs.” The scene plays really strong, still—considering its 70s vintage.
Another facet of the narrative implies that two females in the narrative are marginally culpable, in different ways, for the fatalities fallout. That might be another reason the story is not well-received by many female viewers, and even men in the theater.
Like in-vogue video games, a movie is projected on a screen somewhere every hour that makes its viewers want to see violence. Or putting it another way, justifies the mayhem. Both of these “Dogs” do that in triplicate. You can feel it up and down your spine.
But at the same time, because of what embodies the substance and character of David, anyone watching attentively will be aware of why they, themselves, are “enjoying” the awful furor on the screen. Would that there were more violence-prone motion pictures that gave such a message.
Much like fighting with fire with fire, either “Straw Dogs” is important and, in its strange and unsettling way, approaches cinematic art.