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In Blackwater, Miss., Charlie and Amy must've been something like royalty.
Charlie was the high school quarterback. Amy was captain of the cheerleading squad. Inevitably they became a couple, and all these years later, a picture of them together still graces the wall of the town watering hole.
But things change, and even high school royalty must step down and pass on the crown. Amy headed west and became a television star, meeting and marrying David—a handsome-but-nebbish screenwriter—along the way. And Charlie … well, Charlie's still in Blackwater, working construction. His roots run deep here, and in this small town's aristocracy he's still got some power, some pull. But he's not the king anymore. He's a working man, surrounded by old friends and hangers-on, laboring a few hours a day before cutting out to hunt or drink or both.
And then Amy comes back—hubby in tow with his classic Jaguar and laceless shoes. Her dad passed away recently, leaving her and David his beautiful farmhouse and barn and acres of history. Sure, they're city folk now, more at home in Los Angeles than in the backwoods of the South. But David's got a screenplay to finish, and the isolated farmhouse seems like the perfect place to do it. Nothing but peace and solitude for miles around.
Charlie's not interested in peace, though. Amy's back, and he's starting to feel possessive again. And why shouldn't he? Her husband's a joke—a overeducated wimp who doesn't know the first thing about cleaning a deer or firing a gun or pleasing a woman like her.
So begins the war—slow and cold at first, covered with decorum and salted with innuendo. But long before David can finish his screenplay, it goes hot: burning, boiling, blazing hot, with the Mississippi dirt lapping up its combatants' warm blood.
David may, frankly, come across as a little condescending at times. But he actually is trying to make friends and fit in. He gives Charlie and his crew a contract to fix his barn roof, even though he knows that Charlie's maybe not all the way over Amy. He buys rounds of beer at the bar. He wants to give everyone the benefit of the doubt.
Amy reads Charlie's generous nature as cowardice—and perhaps she's right. When Blackwater's respected old high school coach Tom flies into a rage and starts pummeling a handicapped man named Jeremy for daring to talk to his daughter, it's Amy who steps between Tom and Jeremy, not David. And when David scolds her for do so, she's furious: "Somebody had to do something."
"I'm not going into the f‑‑‑ing fray!" he shouts. "It's against my principles!"
But maybe Amy's got David figured all wrong. Because David, whatever else he is, is a man of principles. Much later, Jeremy finds refuge in David and Amy's farmhouse as Tom, Charlie and their friends demand that he be given over to them. While Amy considers it, David refuses. He will not allow Jeremy to be killed (which he most assuredly would be), even though by going against this mob he's putting himself and his wife in danger. When he finally fights, then, it's for the life of someone else. And that's pretty admirable.
Straw Dogs can feel, at times, like the violent country fantasy of a city-bound screenwriter with a penchant for stereotype. And if one forces the film into the realm of metaphor, religion doesn't come across too well.
David and Amy attend a "pray and play" rally for the local football team, where the minister prays for the safety of soldiers who protect us from "those who would challenge You, O Lord." He also reminds the faithful that God will "unleash His wrath" on unbelievers—before blessing the local football team. "God stands with you when you stand with Him," he says, suggesting that a holy team is a winning team. The pastor then starts teaching from the Book of Revelation.
David walks out of the service and naps in his car where Charlie confronts him. "Don't you believe in God?" he asks. "No," David says. "He sounds like a bully to me." It's a line that links Charlie's later actions with what would appear to be the screenwriter's concept of God. When Charlie says, "The Lord works in mysterious ways," David responds, "The most dangerous words in history."
David tells Charlie that he does believe in one biblical passage: the part about not coveting a neighbor's wife.
Amy's garb throughout the film is tight and revealing—and much appreciated by Charlie and his leering pals. When Amy insinuates that David should do something about their unwanted attentions, he suggests that she wear a bra.
"I dress for you, David," she says. "Not for them." David tells her that he already knows what she looks like naked. In retaliation for this comment, Amy goes upstairs, opens a window and disrobes in front of Charlie and his crew.
Of course Charlie takes this as a sign that Amy's still interested in him. And he quickly arranges for David to be out of the way for while—while he rapes Amy. The scene is filmed with erotic overtones as if seen through Charlie's eyes. And it includes the removal of clothing, partial nudity, and explicit sexual motions and facial expressions. For Amy the scene is one of horrific violation and betrayal. And it's immediately followed by one of Charlie's friends pulling Charlie off Amy and raping her again—violently. (The camera zeroes in on Amy's screaming, weeping face.)
Amy doesn't tell David about the rapes. And the two of them go to a football game together, where every collision on the field brings to mind the rape as we see undefined flesh and contact flash across the screen.
David and Amy engage in foreplay involving chess pieces, which he runs up her leg and uses for (it's implied) sexual purposes. They also make out in their car, with Amy reaching for David's crotch.
Tom's daughter, who is 15, flirts with Jeremy and during a game leads him away from the crowd. In a dressing room she kisses him and kneels down as if preparing to give him oral sex. Charlie and his friends talk about sex and joke about who'd they'd rather have sex with, Hank Williams or Johnny Cash.
The original Straw Dogs, made in 1971 and starring Dustin Hoffman, was renowned for its violence, and this remake does what it can to not only pay homage to its bloody forebear but supersede it.
The rape is both violent and violating. Amy is physically and psychologically shredded by it. And then it's on to the life-or-death siege of the farmhouse that serves as the film's gore-covered centerpiece.
A quick rundown of that siege: Hands are nailed to a wall with a nail gun. A foot is nearly blown off by a bullet. A throat is sliced with jagged glass. A head is snapped in a bear trap. A body is pummeled to death with a crowbar. Shotgun blasts send several folks into eternity. A would-be invader is scalded by burning oil. Two other people are beaten severely and thrown up against the house's rock walls.
Elsewhere, a man gets hit by a car. He sits in the middle of the road, a bone sticking out of his blood-covered forearm. A woman is smothered to death, kicking weakly against the strong grip. A man has his hand driven into a beer glass, severely cutting his palm. David, driving his Jaguar, nearly smashes into a logging truck after being waved around by Charlie and his friends. He spins out but survives.
David barely dodges a bullet during a hunting expedition. Two deer are shot, and a man nearly saws the antlers off of one of the beasts while it's still alive. David and Amy's housecat is found dead, hanging in their closet.
Crude or Profane Language
Nearly 100 f-words are used, along with another 30 s-words. Crass characters say "a‑‑," "b‑‑ch," "h���‑‑" and "p‑‑‑y." God's name is misused at least 25 times, most often alongside "d‑‑n." Jesus' name is abused another half-dozen times.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Charlie, Tom and their friends seem in a state of perpetual inebriation (partial or full). Someone jokingly whispers that Tom—who always seems drunk and angry—is going over his 12-drink limit at the bar. Someone ransacks David's fridge for beer, taking an armful of cans back to his mates. During the night of the siege, the members of the mob look as if they've all been drinking heavily. David guzzles beer to prove his manhood.
We see folks smoke cigarettes. David plays with a pipe left in the farmhouse.
Other Negative Elements
The original Straw Dogs was one of the most violent, most controversial films of its era, with some critics calling it a potentially fascist celebration of vigilantism and a disturbing amalgamation of sex and violence.
The 2011 remake wasn't even the most violent movie I reviewed this week.
That statement reflects more on our times than this film, I believe. Because so much blood is shed here that characters literally slip in the stuff. Corpses pile up like logs. And a brutal rape is given explicit screen time.
Sam Peckinpah, the director of the original, later defended his work, telling his critics that Hoffman's David Sumner was the real villain in the film, and that the retribution he wreaks at the end reveals his true, homicidal self. I have not seen that film, but perhaps because of its deep and sometimes conflicting layers, Straw Dogs is now considered a classic within the Hollywood system.
The remake has little of that kind of complexity with which to commend itself to the entertainment intelligentsia. This Straw Dogs is a strictly low-brow affair—a story in which alcohol, conflicting values and lust lead to a long and pointless cataclysm.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
James Marsden as David Sumner; Kate Bosworth as Amy Sumner; Alexander Skarsgård as Charlie; James Woods as Tom Heddon; Dominic Purcell as Jeremy Niles
September 16, 2011
December 20, 2011