SPOILERS! This remake was widely dismissed upon its release the other year, with cries of “how dare people touch a Sam Peckinpah classic?!” But Straw Dogs ain’t no Wild Bunch, let me tell you. The 1971 version of Straw Dogs seems to have been risen aloft in recent years as some kind of perfect vision of the ‘Us vs. Them’ thriller. It does have many good things going for it, but it also has some terrible old clichés and a really grim rape scene. So you’ll be pleased to hear that the remake has stuck closely to its origins, if not in location (it’s now set in the Deep South as opposed to the deep south of Cornwall) then certainly with its old clichés and another grim rape scene.
This new version finds James Marsden and Kate Bosworth returning to her old home town so he can concentrate on finishing his film script about the heroes of Stalingrad, seemingly blissfully unaware that this film has already been done twice in the last few years with Enemy at the Gates and Stalingrad (Oi Marsden! The clue’s in the title!). Here the usual assortment of sweaty, unshaven, lazy, beer-swigging Southern hicks roll about lusting after Bosworth’s tight little Hollywood body. The most prominent of these is the absolutely vast Alexander Skarsgård. I mean, this guy is huge and not in a fat way; I mean he’s a fucking giant. Every time he’s on screen it looks like everyone has been shrunk down to a smaller scale and when he’s got his mighty hand around Marsden’s neck it looks like he’s playing with an Action Man doll.
These men are an obvious threat to the fragile tranquillity of the young couple’s happiness, so of course Marsden does the obvious thing and employs Skarsgård and his pack to do up their broken down barn. This is where the main dynamic of the film lies, dealing with class difference: big city liberal vs. small-town conservative and brains vs. brawn and it’s all done pretty well, managing to make solid social commentary while simultaneously building up sweaty tension until everything blows up in the Southern heat.
One aspect of the original underlying story which is repeated in the remake is the idea that nerdy bookworm men should be constantly aware that they are under threat of having such a glamorous woman taken away from them by ‘real men’, so to speak. Kind of like stronger lions stealing another’s mate in the wild. In the original film Dustin Hoffman as a super geeky mathematician excels at this, really emphasising the odds that are stacked against him, which makes his final violent defence all the more powerful. Now I like James Marsden as an actor, he has an easy going charm about him, but relentless glasses-wearing doesn’t distract from the fact that the lad is far too good looking for the role. At no point do you think he’s ‘punching above his weight’ with his beautiful wife, which undermines the dynamic of the characters somewhat.
Finally, after various subplots involving James Woods as a bigot, we get to the last act which like the previous version is one big long siege with lots of screaming, shotgunnin’ and a dirty great big bear trap. And it’s a pretty intense act. Even with his pretty boy looks you do actually feel that the odds are indeed stacked against Marsden and Bosworth as they get suitably bloody and savage. It’s gripping stuff, which is a nice surprise since up until this point things have been moving along pleasantly, if not exactly thrillingly.
Oh… And I’ve got to talk about the rape scene I suppose.
The original film was notorious for the vastly unpleasant rape where Susan George seems to smile at one point, perhaps suggesting a certain amount of pleasure. This resulted in the film being unavailable for years with Peckenpah refusing to cut the scene and the censors refusing to release it. Anyway as it turns out, that ‘smile’ was a result of a cut already made before the film was first released, bringing the two shots incorrectly together and making the scene seem much worse than it initially was. Still…
Well there’s no such smile in the remake. At first Bosworth really does try to fight off her attackers, but when she realises it’s hopeless and she’s going to be raped whatever she does, she goes silent. All understandable of course, but the unfortunate side-effect of this is that what we actually therefore see is just two super beautiful bodies grinding one on the other. Taken out of context, it could look like any Hollywood sex-scene and so potentially undermines what a hideous, ugly and often violent act rape really is. When a second more aggressive rape takes place, with an unattractive perpetrator, the camera shies away from watching this. Well I’m glad about that in many ways, but on the other hand I think that showing one kind of rape and then avoiding the other suggests that sexual violence perpetrated by beautiful people can be titillating. As such the film seemingly avoids showing rape in the terrible light it deserves. Also, because Bosworth’s character doesn’t tell anyone what happens to her (there’s a suggestion that Marsden knows, but that doesn’t really make any sense) this renders the rape almost completely irrelevant in terms of the rest of the plot, in which case why have it in there at all? You could argue that it explains why Bosworth acts so violently later on, but why does a woman have to suffer the indignity of sexual assault before she can ‘legitimately’ beat the shit out of guys who are otherwise hideous, foaming-at-the-bit villains anyway? Maybe the film makers thought it was in the original so we gotta have it in this one. I’m not so sure we do.
Anyway, apart from that, as remakes go Straw Dogs one of the better ‘what-is-the-point’ remakes of late. It’s made with a certain amount of intelligence and thought, and at least they didn’t try to make up an explanation for the title: “well Amy honey, it seems like those wild redneck dogs were made of nothing more than straw after all”. Phew.