Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Straw Dogs

2011. Dir: Rod Lurie. Starring: James Marsden, Kate Bosworth, Alexander Skarsgård, James Woods and Dominic Purcell. ●●●○○

Note there is no way of reviewing Rod Lurie's Straw Dogs without spoilers, largely because of the history of the original ground-breaking 1971 exploitation film, directed by Sam Peckinpah. In fact I doubt it's possible to review the film without explicit comparison to it's forebear because of that unique legacy, we will have to address - in detail - the iconic scenes that even people who haven't seen the film know and the social and cultural landscape in which the films were made. Therefore if you haven't seen the movie and you still wish to do so I would not advise reading on...

Thank you for joining me.

Back in the early 70’s Pekinpah was exploring the cinema-going audiences capacity to take violence, and whilst his Rio Bravo inspired siege movie didn’t have the genre defining revisionism he would later bring to The Wild Bunch it’s fair to say he still turned a few heads. His thesis was that man was at heart an vicious beast, prepared act on ultra-violent urges if his property or family were threatened. Dustin Hoffman’s mild mannered mathematician cuts a desperate, lonely figure, haunted by the rape of his wife and the invasion of his Cornish farmhouse by inhospitable locals, his anguish and loss of self control as he fights back is palpable. Peckinpah was taunting us with the barely disguised brutal reality of the human animal underneath this veneer of respectability in modern society.

At the time the movie caused a stir for it’s graphic depiction of violence, and especially for the murky issue of consensual rape which earned the film it’s video nasty tag when it was refused release in the 1980’s on this side on the pond. Yet here we are 40 years later, with torture porn and stalker pics regularly leading the box office charts and gradually upping the gore quotient to the extent that the content of the original now seems tame and unthreatening, even if the sexual assault sequence still retains part of it’s power. Would the remake try to outdo it’s predecessor? Where would it fit on the scale of violent semi-horrors? Does the rape still provoke controversy?

Well. No, not very high and yes and no.

The remake opens with James Marsden’s geeky but (let’s face it) buff screenwriter with gorgeous actress wife Kate Bosworth returning to her small Louisiana hometown, it’s a society ruled by hunting and church. Where the former stars of the football team are idolised well beyond their prime, slowly developing into the straw dogs of the title, abandoned Gods seeking ways to reassert their alpha male status, eager to torture the weaker or more passive members of the community.

Of course it doesn’t take long for the unlucky couple to walk into Bosworth’s ex, a hulking roofer (Skarsgaard) with a natty line in vests and the barest of flames still for his former squeeze, and Marsden being the naive townie that he is takes no hesitation in hiring his competitor to fix the barn. Needless to say the relationships between the central trio, and Skarsgaard’s cohorts of handymen soon breaks down with false acts of friendship and escalating war of words between the two men masking the battle for Bosworth’s body.

There are three stages of the violent acts, against the pets, the wife and finally the house, and each of these needs to be tackled separately.

Something terrible happens to Bosworth’s pussy (no, we’re not on that bit yet) whilst the couple are at a town picnic, and the first reveal of this is both shocking and extremely well handled. Marsden opens a wardrobe and we and he see the deceased moggy, but we see it over his shoulder, partly obscured, enough to recognise what happened but not so we are taken out of the moment. This tension is then ruined when the cupboard is opening again and we see a cuddly toy suspended by a belt. Oh, when will filmmakers learn that less is more? This is also the point realism gets thrown out of the window because I for one would certainly report that to the Sheriff.

The final set piece involves the storming of the farm as the brooding roofers, egged on by the drunk James Woods (involving but not stretching) attempt to force their way into the couples isolated farmhouse, ostensibly to deal out some justice to the mentally ill local seeking refuse after accidently killing a local girl (more on that in a bit), but also to finally conquer the outsiders, to punish their arrogance and discrete fortitude. It’s this point where all the easter eggs of destruction the overworked set designer has laid around the property come into play. Including, you’ll be delighted to hear, the antique bear trap (and not in the way you expect). There is plenty of claret flowing during the ambush but when a lackey was beaten to death by a golf club it was off-screen, making it less gory than the stylish art-flick Drive.

Which only leaves the rape. As with the original the treatment of women is complex and troubling. There are two significant female roles, the sexually precocious teenager who lures idiot savant Dominic Purcell into the locker room before being smothered by him, and Bosworth’s actress who refuses to wear a sports bra whilst jogging (and given how much she sweated I can only imagine how sore her nipples were) and who strips off in sight of the workmen in order to assert her feminist empowerment. When Marsden states she’s asking for it (a long-time prior to the assault it must be noted) you can’t help but agree. Both characters overt sexuality leads directly to their fate, even if there is no is she/isn’t she enjoying the rape moment the filmmaker still condemns her actions.

This change subtly alters the point of the movie. In the 1970’s there was the question of whether a woman could enjoy a rape fantasy, now we are more obsessed with whether the victims are in some way culpable. In the case of Willa Holland's cheerleader she clearly is responsible for her own demise, orchestrating the scenario in which the petrified Purcell must defend himself, whereas Bosworth raises the spectre of the slut walks and whether the clothing or attitude of a girl gives the man implicit permission to push the boundaries. Does the difference lie between the perpetrators understanding of their actions?

The film raises more questions than it dares to try and answer, but in doing so it deserves some applause and I would certainly enjoy the discourse this film would provide with staunch feminists. Now there's a challenge to my readers.

Overall then I would have to just about recommend this interesting example of exploitative cinema.

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