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Tuesday
Oct042011

Straw Dogs compared: an in-depth look at the 1971 original and 2011 remake

As the release date for this year’s version of Straw Dogs approached, I noticed that expectations among my friends and fellow film-lovers were strikingly polarized. Those already familiar with Sam Peckinpah’s version decried the remake as blasphemy, boldly proclaiming that it would never pack the same punch as its predecessor. On the other hand, many were unaware that it was a remake at all, having never seen, or even heard of, the 1971 version. Though I was familiar with the original, I had never given it a proper viewing (it languinshed for years in the depths of my “to watch” list). But seeing the remake stoked my curiosity, and I finally sat down to watch the original and gauge for myself what all the fuss was about. What follows below is a fairly comprehensive comparison between the two--thoughts and impressions on several major components of each film, and how they stack up.

(Be warned: this has some spoilers, but they're necessary)

Plot

There isn’t much to compare in terms of story structure, as Rod Lurie’s 2011 remake is based on the original screenplay with few noticeable changes. The film centers on David Sumner who travels with his wife Amy to her small, backwater hometown where they stay in her late father’s farmhouse so that David can work in peace and quiet. Because he is an intellectual, the locals meet him with immediate (though subdued) animosity--particularly from Charlie Venner and his crew of hooligans. Charlie is Amy’s former lover, and he makes no bones about wanting to pick up where things left off, husband or no. Having been hired by David (perhaps out of condescension) to repair the roof of the barn, Charlie and his buddies are given plenty of time and opportunity to harass David and ogle his wife--pushing him ever closer to his breaking point.

That point is reached near the end of the film. A small sub-plot has Niles, the “village idiot” (for lack of a better term), on the run after unintentionally strangling the daughter of the town drunk, Tom Hedden. David--who is unaware of the murder--accidentally hits Niles with his car, and decides to shelter him in the farmhouse until help arrives. Tom heads to the farm with Charlie and the gang (who are already looking for an excuse to exercise violence), resulting in a horrifyingly bloody home invasion, during which David comes out of his shell and proves his manhood.

The noticeable symmetry in plot is likely what’s left so many critics referring to the remake as unnecessary. After watching both movies, I agree with them.

Locale

The most noticeable difference between the two versions is the environment in which all of this carnage takes place. The original film saw David and Amy leave the United States for Wakely - a small, working-class village in Cornwall, on England’s southern coast. Affluent and wealthy, they are fish out of water –despite the fact that Amy was born here. The culture shock is particularly noticeable through dialogue, as the locals here speak with strong accents and use terms and phrases unfamiliar to most North Americans. The weather adds a spooky, surreal element to the picture, too: we see very little sunshine through the perpetually-grey skies, and the fog that rolls in off the sea at night gives the siege at the end of the film a look and feel usually reserved for horror films.

The remake, on the other hand, keeps David and Amy in America, transplanting them from Los Angeles to Blackwater, Mississippi in the Deep South. If you’re versed at all in redneck stereotypes then you’re already in familiar territory: this is a place where the locals "take care of their own," and never lock their doors. Their priorities include football, church, and hunting--all of which pair wonderfully with alcohol. Utterances from locals are only heard through thick Southern accents and piss-poor grammar. And of course, violence is the only reasonable solution to any and all problems.

Both of these settings serve the story well, as they initially appear humble and inviting, but become tangibly alienating as the plot unfolds and the tension thickens. The English countryside is lovely, after all, but angry British drunks are not (think violent soccer hooligans). Similarly, although the American South is quite picturesque, Deliverance taught us years ago not to be fooled. But I remain a little unsure as to why the location needed to be changed at all for the remake, especially since the plot was left virtually untouched. I’m inclined to think that Lurie was perhaps politically motivated, pitting big city liberals against God-fearing xenophobe bumpkins. To his credit (and regardless of his actual intentions), the left vs. right dynamic contributes tremendously to the film’s tension, but it feels cheap to exploit politics in such a manner with real-life Democrats and Republicans as bitterly polarized as they are right now.

David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman vs. James Marsden)

David Sumner's primary reason for leaving his home and joining Amy in her small hometown is a desire for peace and solitude: he wants to work undisturbed. In the original film, Dustin Hoffman’s David Sumner is a mathematician immersed in academic writing. He is compiling a book, he explains to some locals--about what exactly, we aren’t sure because he trails off before revealing the subject matter. He doesn’t finish his sentence because he knows his listeners aren’t going to understand what he’s talking about, uneducated as they are. This is a prime example of the kind of inadvertent rudeness regularly displayed by David which. While not worthy of the hatred and violence he endures from the townsfolk, his rudeness helps to explain why they dislike him with such intensity. He is, by all accounts, a better man than they, but he could certainly be more polite about it.

In the remake, James Marsden's David is even less tactful. Though he, too, is well intentioned, he is condescending in more overt ways. Good example: during his first church service in Blackwater (church is pretty much mandatory in this town), the atheist inside him begins to feel restless and uncomfortable, so he gets up and quietly exits the building--much to the chagrin of those in attendance, particularly Charlie. There's nothing inherently rude about this. After all, it's plausible that he simply needed to use the restroom. Unfortunately, David decides to head outside and take a nap in his car, which isn’t easy to do inconspicuously when you drive a white convertible. Charlie approaches after the sermon to admonish him, and at this point in the film I believe the audience is actually on Charlie’s side, even if only briefly, as David’s obvious lack of respect and consideration is inexcusably shameful.

This speaks to the primary difference between Hoffman’s David and Marsden’s: varying degrees of aloofness.  In both films, the character is written to appear out of his element and slightly dopey in a culture that's different from what he’s used to. But Hoffman, though awkward, is always easy to identify with. We never look down on him the same way that the locals do, because even though he’s unsure of himself, he holds his own. You might even say that he acts the way that we might act under similar circumstances. Additionally, he regularly dominates during his interactions with Amy. She can be a handful, but Hoffman does a good job of letting her--and us--know who's boss, even when he's in the wrong. Marsden's take on David is decidedly weaker. Along with the church scene, there are other moments in the film where his behavior makes you want to slap yourself on the forehead. For example, after Charlie & co. wake up David and Amy in the early morning with the sounds of their power tools and rock music, David moves to confront them by climbing up their work ladder in his bathrobe and slippers, leaving us wondering how someone so smart could possibly be so oblivious. To be fair, Marsden never plays it so loose that we stop sympathizing for him (that would totally ruin the film) but he isn't nearly as sly, clever, and confident as Hoffman is, and as a result his version of the character isn’t nearly as compelling.

Amy Sumner (Susan George vs. Kate Bosworth)

In both films, Amy Sumner is a multi-layered character. She is at times tender to David, and at others, demeaning. Although she detests Charlie, here and there she seems to desire him. She is sure of herself one moment, and unsure the next. At one point she even acknowledges her owon cowardice, for better or for worse.

Played by Susan George, the original Amy is a teenage girl trapped in a woman’s body. Demanding, immature, sassy, and an overall pain in the ass, she is also needy, flirtatious, and highly sexual (with a fantastic body to boot)--precisely the kind of woman who makes a man feel stronger than he really is. Complicated though her character might be, George’s Amy is never erratic enough that we fail to understand her motivations and behaviour. Much of her passive aggressiveness can be chalked up to immaturity, as George never shies away from portraying Amy as weak and fundamentally subservient to her husband. Her marriage is problematic (as it is in the remake), but we are given reason enough to a) acknowledge that the problems stem largely from her childishness, and b) to appreciate David’s subsequent need to set boundaries and maintain the kind of discipline that she sorely lacks.

Kate Bosworth’s take on the character is far too uneven, leaving Amy’s behavior difficult to explain. She is perpetually angry, but her anger is usually focused at whomever she happens to be conversing with. Moreover, this anger does not stem from immaturity: Bosworth’s Amy is intelligent, strong, and very self-aware. She is too much woman for David to handle, which serves to undermine his character and the sympathy we’re supposed to feel for him. Her motivations are murky, as in the scene when she flashes Charlie and the roofers from her bedroom window. When Susan George did it in 1971, she merely passed by, topless, in a nonchalant kind-of-way, making no outright effort to either expose her breasts or to hide them. The new script dictates that Amy actually remove her shirt in front of them, but because Bosworth is so hard to read we’re left asking why. Does she do it to spite David after their argument? Or is it a symbolic, feminist gesture? Or perhaps it’s a manifestation of her repressed desire for Charlie come bubbling to the surface? Bosworth doesn’t seem comfortable making Amy unlikeable, and the film suffers as a result.

The Rape

No scene in the original 1971 version of Straw Dogs is more controversial than the one in which Charlie forcibly rapes Amy after tricking her husband and leaving him stranded during a hunting trip. At the time of its release, critics decried it for its perceived attempt at eroticizing rape--the rape begins as a straightforwardly violent assault, but evolves into something more emotionally complex. Initially, Amy resists Charlie’s advances, but appears to acquiesce when it’s obvious she isn’t in control. Progressively, she responds to his violence. The scene culminates in Charlie’s climax, which is shamelessly intercut with quick shots of David making his first kill alone in the wilderness, after which Amy almost seems to be cuddling with Charlie, basking in some sort of macabre afterglow. Almost immediately afterward though, Charlie’s friend enters the house and takes his turn, to which Amy responds with horror and anguish.

Interestingly, the original version of the film, as heavily edited as it was, omitted the second rape entirely (it was not until 2002 that this footage was restored in subsequent releases on VHS and DVD). Thus, Straw Dogs stands as something of a cultural oddity, as it is one of the only films in existence to qualify as less disturbing by merit of added rape footage; the inclusion of the second rape serves to confirm to the audience that Amy did not, in fact, enjoy being sexually assaulted.

Recently, Kate Bosworth stated in interviews that she experienced genuine anxiety during the filming of this scene for the 2011 remake, describing her panic as all too real. To be sure, this version of the rape is physically more traumatizing, and not nearly as ambiguous as the original. Interestingly, my initial impression in the theatre was that Bosworth’s Amy was, in fact, only a fraction away from acquiescing the same way that Susan George did. She never quite goes the same distance, but a tension is created that begs audience members to question whether or not, on some small level, she might perhaps be enjoying herself. That the film could command such perverse thinking from its viewers is a testament to Lurie’s ability to direct his actors. Hesitant though I am to judge the merits of any sexual assault, I must argue that while the rape scene in the new version is disturbing, it remains pale and diluted in comparison with the horribly ambiguous original.

The Siege

The cathartic nature of the violent massacre that occurs at the end of Straw Dogs was another source of controversy when the original was released. David, having been pushed and shoved and manipulated and patronized for far too long, finally allows himself to lose his cool when Tom Hedden, Charlie, and his gang begin to smash their way into his home in their attempt to reach Niles. With the utterance of perhaps his most compelling line of the film (“I will not allow violence against this house”), he proceeds to fight off his attackers with shocking (and creative) brutality, heating pots of cooking oil on the stove and throwing them in the faces of the intruders, for example. And it is only in this scene, I believe, that the remake genuinely out-does the original. Lurie affords his characters a violence that is more raw and instinctual, and I can only guess the fun he must have re-imagining such carnage (I’m referring especially to his clever addition of a nail to this scene).

The only real problem with the remake here is that it permits us to completely and irresponsibly take pleasure in this mayhem. The 1971 version was labeled "fascist" by a number of critics at the time who argued against a film that encouraged violence as a response to violence. The only reasonable defense against this criticism came from the closing scene, in which David drives through the dark in his convertible, with Niles in the passenger seat. “I don’t know my way home”, Niles says to David. "That’s okay," David replies, "I don’t either." If one is to both read the film as a critique of violence and understand David as the only true villain (which, according to Peckinpah, is the correct interpretation), then this scene is absolutely crucial, and its absence from the remake cannot go unacknowledged.

Overall Impressions

Straw Dogs is a fascinating exploration of contemporary masculinity; a film that boldly questions what it means to be a man in a world that inaccurately describes itself as civilized. Though both versions cultivate remarkable levels of tension, and ultimately satisfy, only the original proceeds to examine the moral cost of that satisfaction. Rod Lurie’s film retells Peckinpah’s story with precision accuracy (most of the set pieces even look the same), but it never convinces us that a remake was necessary in the first place. Although I thoroughly enjoyed the home invasion in the 2011 version (more so than the 1971 version) this was, and remains, a film about psychological warfare, not physical violence. The ambiguity employed so expertly in the original is what elevates Peckinpah’s work to the status of "social critique." Rod Lurie’s film, in comparison, is merely a revenge flick. It’s certainly not a bad movie--it’s slick, well-shot, and entertaining--but its biggest accomplishment is that it inspired me to finally watch the original.

If you haven’t seen it yet, give it a shot. Hopefully it will inspire you, too.

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