Reviewed by: Spencer Schumacher
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|Featuring:||James Marsden … David Sumner
Kate Bosworth … Amy Sumner
Alexander Skarsgård … Charlie
James Woods … Tom Heddon
Walton Goggins … Daniel Niles
Dominic Purcell … Jeremy Niles
Rhys Coiro … Norman
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“I will not allow violence against this house.”
In 1971, director Sam Peckinpah unleashed “Straw Dogs,” his follow up to the highly successful and now classic “The Wild Bunch.” The film greatly divided critics due to its depiction of stylized violence and a very controversial rape scene. Now, forty years later, the film has been remade, and it’s very likely that the same material that divided critics and moviegoers four decades ago will divide audiences today.
David and Amy Sumner (James Marsden and Kate Bosworth) are a Hollywood couple, he a writer and she an actress, returning to her southern home. David feels the rustic setting will help him with his writing and hires a crew of local workers to help refurbish Amy’s childhood home. When David is less than receptive to their local customs and traditions, the locals seek to make David feel anything but welcome.
Though the plot is pretty simple, the film does take an opportunity to address, if only slightly, a handful of controversial issues. Peckinpah is one of a few auteur directors known for a propensity for violence in their films, strong violence that still permeates much of cinema today. He is said to have used violence as a means of catharsis, believing that audience members could be “purged of violence” by witnessing it cinematically. He is said to have been ‘deeply troubled’ by watching audiences react with pleasure, rather than horror, to the violence depicted in some of his films.
Peckinpah would probably be equally disturbed by the context in which violence is used in this 2011 version of his film. The movie puts David Sumner, a writer and self-described pacifist into a town where cultural norms of fighting, hitting (football) and hunting are acceptable ways of life. Local contractor Charlie (Alexander Skarsgård) and his group of ‘good ol’ boys’ push David and Amy’s tolerance levels, as well as putting an edge into their relationship when their southern ways clash with David’s style. With Charlie’s ever increasing instances of disregard for the Sumner’s privacy and ‘modern lifestyle’, David has to make a decision on how to best confront Charlie and his boys. He contends that ‘violence’ goes against his principles, but never explicitly states why. We can conclude that he is not convicted by any religious belief, having stated that he doesn’t believe in God, and is not shy for showing his contempt for religion.
The film touches on a whole range of issues including sexism, gender roles, and ‘what it takes to be a man,’ the cultural differences between small towns and large, metropolitan cities, tolerance and religion. Most of these issues are not given much depth and are merely devices to demonstrate the major differences between the locals and the outsiders.
One issue that serves as the secondary story of the film involves a man with some form of mental illness whom the film alludes to having been involved in committing molestation. James Woods plays a key role in this story as the high school football coach who is concerned about his daughter hanging out with this ‘mentally challenged’ young man.
The film contains a virtual laundry list of material that most general audiences will find offensive and then a second list of items that will undoubtedly offend Christian audiences, in particular.
As stated, a key theme is an exploration of the purpose and meaning of violence in society. There are too many scenes to list here, starting with typical fighting, shooting and stabbing scenes. However, in the third act of the film, the violence level is amped up a few notches, the mere written description alone of some of the more graphic scenes would likely offend many readers. There are also a couple hunting scenes where animals are shot, as well as a scene of animal cruelty that, although serving as a key plot point, is none the less disturbing. There are approximately 30 violent scenes, ranging from punching and kicking to graphic scenes with bloody results.
The key point of controversy in the original film still exists in the latest version. It’s a rape scene, or actually multiple rape scenes that so polarized its original audience in ’71 that the film was banned from showings in the UK. The scene, as it exists, is very suggestive and will just as likely stir up emotions. There are also scenes of a suggestive sexual nature, and, in a few instances, Amy goes jogging in a mere t-shirt and tight shorts. With her sweat making the shirt cling to her chest, there is nothing left to the imagination.
Being a self-described ‘cinemafile,’ I am not one to sit with pen and paper and keep a tally mark record of every objectionable word or scene that might offend a viewer. Besides the fact that I would have spent more time keeping score than actually watching this film, I personally feel it takes away from the experience of watching the film and does a disservice to the filmmakers. For a viewer, like me, thank God there are such sites as “Screenit” which, according to their count, lists at least 76 uses of the ‘f-word’ and nearly three dozen uses of a whole variety of profane language or vulgar references to both female and male anatomy. There are a handful of ‘g-damns’ or other various ways to use God’s name in vain, and also instances of insulting blacks, people with mental disabilities and that other ‘f-word’ meant to degrade homosexual men.
To its credit, the film is multi-layered, and there are a lot of issues that the film is dealing with, perhaps one or two too many to give any issue its fair treatment. One issue that is briefly touched upon is “religion,” and, in the broader scope, the relationship between religion and violence in society. The protagonist, David claims to not believe in God and even compares God to a ‘bully.’ This becomes a source of contempt for Charlie and his crew, as they are regular church goers and ridicule David for his irreverence of church and God. However, it is hard to find their contentions credible when in every other scene they are contradicting a value they so loudly profess to respect.
The biggest criticism I have with this film is that by the time David has to decide which course of action he is going to take to deal with these ‘good ol’ boys’, there has been nothing presented that would lead anyone to reasonably conclude that David really has a choice. The reasons for these locals to target David and extend to him anything but a taste of ‘southern hospitality’ are never really given. Sure the story kind of brushes over that Amy and Charlie were a hot item, before she rode out of the small town to become a star in the big city, but that, in and off itself, does not provide enough justification for their contempt of David, and, therefore, when David responds, the audience is left with nothing but the feeling that he indeed is justified in his actions.
There will likely be those that try to lump this film in with so called ‘torture-porn’ films, which would do this film a disservice. Despite its flaws and abundance of offensive material, “Straw Dogs” does try to honestly present some interesting subjects for discussion. The film is far more intelligent, and the characters, particularly Sam and Amy, have far greater depth than your typical ‘torture-porn’ characters. This is more in the realm of vigilante movies, such as ‘Deliverance.’
Though the film does explore some rather weighty issues that will leave audience members with plenty of fodder for debate, most audience members would be advised to do their research by looking for a far less objectionable source.
Violence: Extreme / Profanity: Heavy / Sex/Nudity: Heavy
See list of Relevant Issues—questions-and-answers.