Straw Dogs (2011) 

Crimes:

  • Remaking a 1971 thriller so specific to the sexual politics of its time and the sensibility of its director, Sam Peckinpah, that it couldn’t possibly have the same impact 40 years later
  • Neutralizing the impact of Peckinpah’s “fascist work of art” (to quote Pauline Kael’s famous review) to such an extent that its sickening brutality becomes crowd-pleasing revenge-movie fodder, which is debased in a different way
  • James Woods, Southerner

Defender: Writer-director Rod Lurie (Deterrence, The Contender, The Last Castle)

Tone of commentary: Thoughtful, well-prepared, and persuasive, at least in outlining what Lurie attempted to do here. He begins with a quote from Peckinpah’s friend Harold Pinter, who was asked to read the screenplay, but returned a scathing response. (“I detest it with unqualified detestation.”) And with that, Lurie lays out his intention to reject Peckinpah’s pessimistic views of mankind by telling the same story in a different way. Lurie brings up Peckinpah’s admiration of Robert Ardrey, a “sociobiologist” who believed that all humans were instinctively violent and that war and aggression were the driving forces behind human evolution. (Lurie notes that Ardrey’s books were “favorites among fascists” and calls him a “quack.”) With his version of Straw Dogs, Lurie wanted to suggest that violence is not the very essence of our being, but an impulse born out of a violent environment—in this case, an Alabama hick town where the locals are into deer hunting, football, and chewing-bubblegum-and-kicking-ass-and-they’re-all-out-of-bubblegum. Unfortunately for Lurie, it’s virtually impossible to get that point across while telling this story—and while aping Peckinpah in several of the key scenes. That explains why critics didn’t seem to notice his subversion, and instead complained about the utter pointlessness of restaging Peckinpah’s morally dubious masterpiece in a pitifully neutered form. Had Lurie, a former film critic, been capable of putting across the ideas he expresses so forcefully on this commentary track, perhaps his Straw Dogs would have gotten more respect. 

What went wrong: The only thing that really went wrong with Lurie’s film were the forces aligned against it in principle: “I knew I was in a no-win situation, to a certain degree. The Peckinpah fanatics were gonna come after me, and they would be the loudest voices. All the people who were gonna look at the film for the film’s sake would be silent until after the film actually opened.” Really, though, most of the mistakes were made by Peckinpah. Though Lurie is quick to qualify his criticisms of Peckinpah by calling him “a genius who invented his own film genre,” his commentary serves as a scene-by-scene dismantling of the 1971 film, from Peckinpah’s idea that the Dustin Hoffman character was really the villain of the piece to the infamous rape sequence, which follows Peckinpah’s pattern of having “women raped or humiliated in almost all of his movies.” Lurie agrees with the studio’s notes that the rape sequence had “much too much of everything,” and made a point of cutting back on the sexual violence in the editing room and making sure Kate Bosworth’s character was “not going to smile” after her ex-boyfriend rapes her. The one concession he makes to Peckinpah is the bloody finale, which Lurie admits, for good reason, was too brilliantly staged for him to replicate. (Though he certainly tries, sometimes beat-for-beat.) 

Comments on the cast: Lurie respects Bosworth’s process and predicts Straw Dogs will do a lot for her career, but he’s consistently distracted by how pretty she is. A lurid shot of Bosworth jogging in front of a pickup truck leaves him ogling, “Look at that… form. Of running.” And a scene where she’s in bed with James Marsden prompts, “I think she looks amazing. He looks… okay, I guess.” When he talks just seconds later about the way the construction workers leer at her as “a reflection of how they were raised,” it’s hard to miss the irony. Lurie also praises the dedication of his cast, like bit player Anson Mount, who interviewed high-school football coaches across the South for two minor scenes, or Woods, whose absurdly over-the-top performance as a vindictive, alcoholic ex-coach was apparently whittled down from a much more florid turn. So credit his restraint on that front. 

Inevitable dash of pretention: Lurie offers no shortage of high-minded influences: a shot modeled after an Andrew Wyeth painting or a scene in Blood Simple, a sermon that references the classic Russian World War II movie Come And See, actors cast for their resemblance to the rapists in Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. But his loftiest touch is recasting the hero as a Hollywood screenwriter working on a script about the Battle Of Stalingrad, an against-the-odds tale of courage and resilience that he sees as analogous to his rape-revenge thriller.  

Commentary track in a nutshell: “Most people don’t cuddle with their rapists. They don’t enjoy it.”