I looked forward to Straw Dogs for a few reasons. First off, it looks like my kind of movie: dark, unsettling, and potentially delving into some real human emotion and touching on some intriguing psychological themes. Secondly, it features a nice piece of man candy in Alexander Skarsgard, better known as vampire Eric Northman on HBO’s True Blood. I like Kate Bosworth (Blue Crush) and James Marsden (X-Men: The Last Stand) too. So it stands to reason I would have enjoyed Straw Dogs, a remake of the 1971 thriller of the same name which featured Dustin Hoffman. Well, I didn’t dislike it but I can’t say I really enjoyed it either.
David and Amy Summer have relocated temporarily to Amy’s hometown in Mississippi for a reprieve from Hollywood. David is a screenwriter and Amy is a modest television star. Her father has recently died and they need to settle some things with his home. At the local bar they meet Amy’s old high school flame Charlie, a tall handsome former football star that time has forgotten. He and his cronies remember Amy well, and they haven’t changed much. David is clearly out of his element, surrounded by hyper-masculine drunken good old boys who admire his Jaguar and wonder why his shoes have no laces. Amy is every bit as lovely as she was in high school, and her fancy Hollywood lifestyle and husband stand in stark contrast to her humble beginnings. It’s almost as if her selection of David as a mate is a rejection of Charlie and his way of life. It sounds like a bit of a stretch, but Charlie makes it clear that he still has a thing for Amy. His lascivious stare and inappropriate gestures are obvious, though David does nothing to discourage it. In fact, he hires Charlie and his gang to patch up the roof of the barn next to their remote property. His reasoning is that Charlie is an old friend of Amy’s, so why not give him some work. This proves to be a decision that has devastating consequences.
Tensions rise out at the house, as Charlie and company start working. They are already drooling over Amy, lamenting missed opportunity with her while inwardly snickering at her choice of man. There is no excuse for their leering, but she doesn’t help matters by jogging around in barely-there shorts without a bra. She complains to David, who tells her to dress more appropriately. This scene is a bit of foreshadowing David’s inability to protect and defend his wife. When the family cat is found hanging by its neck in the closet, Amy demands that David take action. He seems reluctant to point the finger at Charlie and his gang, though it’s unlikely that anyone else could be responsible. Instead of confronting the men, David seems as if he is still looking for acceptance from them. Instead of proving his manhood by sticking up for his wife and making her feel safe; he seeks to prove it by showing this group of goons that he’s one of them. When they invite him to go hunting, he accepts. Unbeknownst to David, the hunting excursion is really a ruse to get David to leave Amy unattended at the house. While David roams about in the woods, Charlie and another crony invade the Sumner home and victimize his wife. These are men that went to high school with Amy, they are not strangers. They view her as an unattainable object, one that has transcended their current station in life. I think it is just as much about David as it is Amy. They don’t view him as a man. They don’t respect his relationship with his wife and they question his ability to protect her. Violating Amy is a twisted assertion of their manhood, and a cruel thing to witness. Even more unsettling than Amy’s rape was the aftermath. Amy doesn’t tell him what has happened, and he has no idea that his wife was violated by the same men he has refused to confront. Now that David was duped into hunting and embarrassed, he is ready to fire Charlie and his men. Amy calls him a coward, and we as viewers know why. She can’t expect him to know intuitively that she was raped, but he’s done nothing to inspire confidence up until this point.
When David fires Charlie the next day, the stage is set for everything to come to a violent head. When the local town hothead (James Woods) and former high school football coach comes looking for his daughter’s mentally-challenged would-be boyfriend on the Sumner property – things turn nasty when David refuses to give him up. This was the final act of the movie, the big payoff. I enjoyed seeing Charlie and his fellow brutes get their comeuppance, but the final scene did not undo my previous frustration. Why is David more protective of a stranger he barely knows than he was of his own wife? Straw Dogs had the potential, but something fell short. I do think it captured the almost imperceptible delineation between football and religion in the South, and the simplistic but happy way of life found beyond the bustling metropolis. Something was missing though. Perhaps the original is more rewarding. I think I’ll cue up the Netflix…