Asking the Right Questions: Why We Should Give "Straw Dogs" a Chance (or Not)

The Shreveport-shot remake of Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs opened at midnight last night amid a swarm of rehashed controversy, holdovers from the original film that provoked violent backlash 40 years ago.

The original issue at stake was a brutal but ambiguous rape scene in which the victim seems to stop struggling and "enjoy" the rape. Remake director Rod Lurie axed that ambiguity, but he also got rid of a series of details that made the characters, though despicable, more three-dimensional.

In 1971, Dustin Hoffman's David Sumner is something of a chump hiding behind pacifism; he flees the United States in favor of rural England to avoid dealing with the Vietnam controversy and a declining but violent civil rights movement. Hesitant to confront local men working on his house over murdering his pet cat and leering over his young wife, he eventually fires them for what he thinks was a cheeky prank, but was in fact a plot to get him away from his wife, whom they gang-rape.

But it's the wife herself, Susan George's Amy Sumner, who should have been at the center of the uproar. Peckinpah introduces Amy with a close-up shot of a clearly unsupported bosom, crating a metal contraption that she identifies as a "man-trap," something used to catch poachers. It is with the man-trap that David finally kills Charlie, Amy's ex-boyfriend-turned-assailant. When Amy complains to David of the workmen's advances early in the film, David just tells her to put on a bra.

Somehow, this blame-the-victim mentality never found its way into the rape debate that the 1971 movie spawned; nobody ever touched the question of rape victims as "man traps."

But where Peckinpah dropped the ball in his treatment of sexual assault, he succeeded in his exploration of violence of other varieties, which was his expressed purpose in any case. The simpering David is ultimately compelled to do violence against the lynch mob who are after Henry Miles, a dimwitted pedophile. But this is just one nuance in a long chain of escalating brutality. The workmen kill the Sumners' cat as an act of domination and humiliation. After Charlie rapes Amy, his compatriot forces him at gunpoint to hold her down as he does the same. The locals grow increasingly violent towards David and coalesce immediately to hunt down Henry, killing a constable in the process.

When David finally gives into violence, Hoffman's portrayal is of a man visibly disgusted by what he is doing, and by the people to whom he is doing it. But the catharsis makes the case for David's pacifism believable. It's easy to discount him for the first 90 minutes of the film as a wimp who won't "commit," as Amy accuses him, but his seminal line, "This is my house, this is me – I will not allow violence against this house" completes a portrait of man trying – though failing – to be peaceful in a violent world. Whether or not we agree with Peckinpah's assertions about violence, the character, now fully-formed, makes a sort of horrifying sense.

That is what is really lacking from the 2011 film; absent David's backstory, the same line about violence rings more of Clint Eastwood growling "Get off my lawn." The film becomes violent in nature instead of a meditation on violence.

The retelling of Straw Dogs brings to mind the recent remakes of Last House on the Left (1972) and I Spit on your Grave (1978), films of similar content that were met with similar backlash. The plot formula of "peaceful person driven to (or back to) violence" has given us a slew of films over the years, some better than others. But the rehashing of many of these movies raises a troubling question. Many were released originally with a backdrop of an unpopular war, the release of the Pentagon Papers and the erosion of public confidence in public authority, as well as smoldering, violent racial problems and regional antagonism. I'd like to think that some of those issues have at least gotten better, but in the era of multiform foreign police actions, a crippled economy, WikiLeaks and "red state-blue state" vitriol, I'm compelled to wonder whether we're not right back where we started.

Digital Sponsors

Become a sponsor ...

Sign up for our FREE

New Orleans Magazine email newsletter

Get the the best in New Orleans dining, shopping, events and more delivered to your inbox.