Thursday, October 6, 2011

If these dogs are barking don't bother coming in

Straw Dogs [*1/2]

In the forty years that separate Sam Peckinpah and Rod Lurie’s versions of Straw Dogs I wondered if the same views and values would stand the test of time, much less cultures, and as it turns out they feel equally primitive in both contexts. The film(s) are a whole sticky wicket of problems and provocations, and if the films don’t need to be remade at least there is a legitimate conversation piece. Those things don‘t happen often enough.

Before I delve into everything, I would like to state that the movie is reasonably well made, this isn’t a project you embark on if you feel dispassionate in any way about the material. From a technical standpoint it is competent and need not be discussed any further in that regard. The movie, however, lives or dies on how one reacts to it and the film can, and will, evoke a lot of uncomfortable thoughts and may even provide some much needed gravity and perspective to the casual misogyny most of us will be extremely guilty of going in.

An official plot synopsis and other information is required before diving into the muckety muck of the film proper: David and Amy Sumner (James Marsden and Kate Bosworth) are a successful Hollywood couple, she’s an actress he’s a screenwriter, who have returned to her hometown of Blackwater, Mississippi to get the family home in order. First welcomed with open arms, tensions gradually begin to mount between the Sumners and the locals (more specifically a few of her old friends/gawkers: Alexander Skarsgard, Rhys Coiro, Billy Lush, Drew Powell) before one unspeakable crime begets another. This all culminates in a stand-off in which David must protect his house and family from Skarsgard and co while also harboring the town’s local idiot/ potential pedophile, Jeremy Niles.

A few major events that are discussed in the essay include: the rape of Amy, behaviors of the coach’s daughter and her relationship to the mentally challenged Jeremy Niles (Dominic Purcell), the arrival of Skarsgard and company looking to claim Niles after the coach’s fifteen-year-old daughter goes missing and the Sumners decision to protect him, and the general milquetoast-ness of David.

To put it mildly, both versions of the film hate women. At least women, for sure, but probably all females. In fact, the one thing that both version of “Straw Dogs” manage to successfully convey is a disdain for women that I’m not sure most cavemen would endorse.* The movie hates women so much that it bends over backwards to let us know that girls are not women (although biologically speaking a fifteen-year-old girl would have matured to the point of womanhood), but that all women regardless of age are provocateurs (which is something we will come back to); a troubling and contradictory stance that is worth trying to wrap your head around. However, the important thing to remember at the moment is that girls are not women especially if they have a daddy to remind everybody of that fact (a crazy, terrifying nutter of a dad played by James Woods, no less). The daddy also has four twenty-something year-old yes men (Skarsgard and co.) who, by the by, don’t have a problem raping one female (Bosworth) while they rush to the defense of another (coach’s little girl). This “girl” also happens to be their old coach’s daughter, so maybe they don’t rape her out of respect or fear for her father. They don’t respect or fear the husband (James Marsden) of the woman they do rape so maybe it is that simple. Someone has to assert dominance for the animals to learn their place. With all of that said, one could make the simple argument that the reason the men don’t rape the girl is because they are not pedophiles. It is a fact, these men are not pedophiles, but the girl is, biologically speaking, a woman. And the movie will go on to make a very arbitrary distinction between girl and woman since the movie has a very specific idea of how it wants you to feel about females. In addition to the men not fearing or respecting the husband they also have a desire to destroy the woman. Not just because it is in their nature to do and because she is a woman and they hate them, but because she has chosen an outsider as her lover. The coach’s daughter whom these men so “valiantly defend” in the film’s climax has also chosen an outsider, a mentally challenged man (Dominic Purcell), whom she is friendly with and who, much to the chagrin of the locals, calls her his girlfriend (and may himself be a pervert, though this is never shown). This girl, coach’s daughter, may be being friendly because she sees him as a relatively harmless fellow, but the movie never affords us that knowledge, so because of the film’s disdain for women and the view that they are provocateurs, we have no choice but to assume that the movie’s goal is for us to hate women. Writing this I can’t help but equate the mentally challenged man to an outsider, which means that the young girl has effectively chosen an outsider (he was born mentally handicapped), but he’s not an outsider by choice so the onus of the mistake lies with him and not with her. Or that’s what we the audience is left to assume. There are moments when things get all Frankensteinian up in this bitch (moreso when the angry mob goes hunting after the big dumb lug with a gun in lieu of torches) when the retarded guy accidentally kills coach’s daughter as he tries to quiet her. This happens so that her Coach wouldn’t be drawn into a room in which he saw a mentally challenged older man with his daughter. She dies, perhaps, by accident but also because the movie needs her to, to prove on some level that a woman cannot go unpunished for choosing the outsider. The girl cannot suffer the same fate as the wife because she’s a girl but she must suffer because she is a female. It bears noting that what happens to the daughter is probably meant to show another distinction between deserving what you get and not deserving it. I have only had conversations with four people about the film and two have compared the film’s treatment of women to Muslims and two more have said that Bosworth’s character brought her rape on herself when she flashes the men who have been ogling her body. Sure, it might be a provocative thing to do (flashing men you know are looking at you and making you uncomfortable), but it doesn’t justify rape. The whole argument that she brought it on herself would mean that the two men who said this would literally have to be ok with someone saying “I’m going to go rape this woman” (and since I know them to be decent people who wouldn’t partake in such an activity) and they would have to say: “take your time. I brought a book to read, I’ll be out in the truck waiting.” It’s a terrible thing to say that someone asked to be raped and to say she brought it on herself is a pretty lousy justification or defense of any action. Although, I suppose the idea of he/she brought it upon his/herself works strictly as a series of actions and reactions and only in certain contexts: she was looking and smelling good so it’s her fault I went and introduced myself/ we talked and danced/ now we’re married. Her fault for being sexy. At the end of the day it’s just mean to say that someone deserves something bad and it undercuts one’s basic humanity to say as much.

Another problem that the film suffers is that Amy Sumner is raped, but her husband David’s final stand against the men who performed the crime has nothing to do with the fact that they raped her. The men violated the sanctity of his home, sure, but the sanctity of his wife seems to be important only because she is in his home, but not because she is his wife. In fact, were it not for a slight deviation from the original film, Amy’s rape would go unmentioned to her husband in the film proper. And I don’t believe there are any looks telling enough between the two of them that suggest that she has communicated her rape to him in code or with a glance. While she was being raped, David was out hunting, and being abandoned by the men he will later fight, and he comes home stewing that the men left him in the woods and remains completely oblivious to the distraught looks of his wife. This moment in the woods, occurring alongside his wife’s rape, is also the one in which the milquetoast learns how to shoot straight and become a man. Giving the movie a direct correlation to empowerment through rape, not that it wasn’t obvious already, but it appears to send a mixed message when one considers that David’s wife’s rape gives him a heretofore unknown strength (that he later uses against the same men) and allows him to secretly avenge a rape he didn‘t know about; when it‘s really kind of obvious that the reason she never tells David is because he honestly can‘t be bothered to defend his wife in any previous context in the movie. When this Amy (who unlike the original film’s Amy, is no longer still turned on by bad boy aggression) reports to her husband concerns that the men have killed the family cat and that they were ogling her body as she worked up a sweat while running, David’s solution is to pussyfoot around the former issue and to take the men’s side in the latter. And while I initially couldn’t blame him for his reaction to the men ogling her it just seemed to underscore how much of a shit he doesn’t give about her concerns. This movie validates David’s flippancy when Amy goes to take a shower and exposes herself to the men who are going to look anyway by painting her as, you guessed it, a provocateur. I suppose that by ultimately allowing Amy to be the avenger of her own rape the filmmakers have at least elevated her person somewhat. Amy and David have a marriage that paints her as a not terribly bright, but not idiotic girl, who engages in some good humored and kind of flirty passive aggression with a too serious minded husband. In the original, Amy was world’s more attractive and world’s dumber than her husband, but in making the ‘11 Sumners a more plausible and attractive couple Amy gets elevated to a step above a come dumpster (the fact that she doesn‘t enjoy being forcibly taken by her ex-boyfriend in this incarnation also helps to elevate her status). However, it negates one of the chief reasons I thought casting Skarsgard for the role was a novel idea**). Let’s hear it for progress. But again, this development paints David in a worse light because he’s not avenging his wife, he’s protecting his home and he’s been spurred on this path because he is protecting another outsider (the mentally challenged man). If there is a logic to be found in Sumner’s actions it is the idea that protecting our own only applies to houses that transfer ownership, people that are outcasts like oneself and things that can’t get tainted (read: raped) by the other. One could argue that David fighting back against the home invaders is him stopping a raping and pillaging that he could not prevent before, but the gesture is meaningless when the damage has been done already and when your own wife won‘t tell you that she has been attacked. He’s not really a hero for any reason that matters, he’s like the men who come to his house looking for blood-- so full of moral outrage that the only thing that is really getting accomplished is that their anger is making hypocrites out of all of them.

At the end of the day, one cannot help but feel about Straw Dogs the way Straw Dogs wants them to feel about women-- it is a provocateur, it probably wants us to hate it, but it’ll settle for any reaction as long as it gets one.

* In my section of the Bible Belt, saying that a caveman wouldn’t endorse the films views on women got this reaction from a married couple: kind of like Muslims. Muslims being cavemen in this scenario. Also, since the rednecks in the film are churchgoing types it allows them an easy platform for unjustifiable indignation, but the audience seems pretty unwilling to acknowledge the hypocrisy of their observations. As it regards Muslims v Christianity. I’m sure the film will lend itself to a religious interpretation, but lacking the ability to analyze in that way, the people remain, on a level of basic human decency, irredeemable assholes. Being Muslims or anything like it doesn’t matter for me.

** Casting Skarsgard as the rapist ex-boyfriend seemed to make a lot of sense if you got the impression that the movie was being “True Blood”ed (a show which features Skarsgard as an oft-shirtless vampire that ladies swoon over) up and that they were really playing up the hot, sweaty, sexy angle. I am also under a completely unsubstantiated belief that any “True Blood” loving female with a rape fantasy has one that stars Skarsgard, whose Southern accent is great, by the way.