Rod Lurie’s brilliant remake of Straw Dogs – one of the seminal films of the 1970s – opens Friday. The film retains the plot, characters, and violence that made the original film extraordinarily controversial, but Lurie has made some significant changes, and he says he is trying to make a different point than Sam Peckinpah made.
In my view, the movie makes a third, more important point — one that is critical to consider in the days after the tenth anniversary of 9/11.
Back in 1971, Peckinpah’s film was savaged by many of the leading film critics: Pauline Kael wrote in The New Yorker that it was the “first American film that is a fascist work of art.” A young film critic named Roger Ebert wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times that it was “offensive” and “totally committed to the pornography of violence.” Thirteen critics wrote to the Times in London to revile the film. In its first public preview, a third of the audience walked out.
Lurie’s film is no less violent, and like the original it features extraordinary performances — this time by James Marsden, Kate Bosworth, Alexander Skarsgård, and James Woods in the roles originally played by Dustin Hoffman, Susan George, Del Henney, and Peter Vaughn. But the contrasts between the two films are the clues to their respective meanings, and taken together, they provide some important insights about “fascism” then and now.
In both movies, a young American named David Sumner returns with his attractive wife Amy to her small hometown, so David can work on his writing. Peace and quiet are the essence of what he seeks. The town is an oppressive place, with townspeople (especially Amy’s old boyfriend) instinctively antagonistic to David. The tension — cultural, sexual, interpersonal — is present from the opening and builds throughout, heading toward a rape of Amy while David is lost in the woods with a gun in his hands, on a fool’s hunting trip. The climax of the movie is an orgy of violence that leaves the characters and the audience both stunned.
In the original, the town is in the English countryside and David is a math professor working on a book about astrophysics, seeking refuge from the campus protests of the Vietnam War, about which he has failed to take a stand. In Lurie’s remake, the town is the American Deep South, and David is a screenwriter from Hollywood working on a screenplay about Stalingrad in World War II. Lurie has brought the conflict figuratively closer to home, placing it in a setting that involves not characters from two countries but two parts of America.
Lurie has said that the message of his remake is distinctly different from that of Pekinpah’s film: “At the end of [Peckinpah’s], the hero finds the animal inside him. At the end of my film, the hero finds the man inside him.” But there is an even broader point, one made more apparent by considering the different real worlds in which the two films were made.