A Straw Dogs for Our Time
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.
Back in 1971, it was a time when America was considered by some, particularly on American campuses, as a quasi-fascist country, and given the moniker of “Amerika.” Forty years later, we have a better appreciation of the nature and source of fascism in the world, and after 9/11 we know we have no geographic exemption from horrific historic violence.
The town in the movie is a microcosm of a world morally adrift. The police enforce hunting regulations but are powerless to act against human violence; the pastor uses his sermons to invoke blessings for the weekend football game; the bartender (figuratively presiding over the center of social activity) cannot control his customers. In Peckinpah’s film, Amy responds to her rapist after initially resisting; in the remake, she is closer to the moral center of the movie. At a critical juncture, David and she have a tense exchange (the video is here):
Amy: [Quietly]: You’re a coward.
David: [Shakes his head]: No I’m not.
Amy: Yeah. So am I. Plain and simple.
David: No I’m not.
Amy: Yeah. Yeah. If you had done something.
Amy: If you had said something. If you had done something --
David: Amy, I was trying to get them to talk.
David: [Throws something against the wall]: QUIET!
David quiets his wife, but he does not get the peace and quiet for which he came to the town. He is the prototypical stupid smart person, the reasonable man with a hand outstretched to unreasonable men, hoping that if he leaves the world alone, the world will leave him alone too, so he can work on his book. But he will need more than his superior education and intellect to survive.
The violence that ends the movie is not gratuitous, and it is not nearly as shocking as things we have experienced in real life: throwing an old man in a wheelchair off a ship. Or the cold blooded murder of Olympic athletes. Or the massacre of 21 kids dancing in a discotheque. Or slaughtering elderly people at a seder in a hotel. Or destroying people riding buses to work or school. Or bombing a father and daughter having pizza the night before her wedding. Or destroying entire families while they sleep at home, or ride home in a car. Or beheading Daniel Pearl because he was a Jew. Or beheading Nick Berg because he was an American. Or flying jets into office buildings where tens of thousands of people are at work. Or the even worse atrocities currently being planned by those who repeatedly pronounce their intent.
What seemed shocking in 1971 no longer shocks us. We have lived through violence much worse than Peckinpah filmed 40 years ago. We do not need another movie -- much less a remake -- to remind us that man is a violent creature, or that entire societies can become drunk on violence and death. We know that; we have seen it; we see it now.
What we need is a film that dramatizes the awful consequences of men who think they are better than the world, who are oblivious of the gathering storm, who defend themselves only when they have no other choice -- and whose defense, coming so late, after things have gotten out of hand, helps bring catastrophe to everyone involved. In my view, Rod Lurie has made that film.