Straw Dogs (1971) is one of those movies that’s difficult to categorize. Heavy on drama, yet light on action, I suppose it’s best considered a thriller.But thematically, it compares to Last House on the Left (1972) and I Spit on Your Grave (1978), so that must be why it occasionally appears on lists of horror movies. Since those two were recently remade, why not Straw Dogs?
There are two elements of the original Straw Dogs that make an update seem foolhardy: director Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch) and actor Dustin Hoffman (no movie required to identify). However, the movie left me with more questions than answers and was filmed with such a unique, albeit inconsistent, style, it actually makes sense to me that someone attempt to modernize it.
My primary question involves the young couple, David and Amy Sumner (Hoffman and Susan George). They don’t seem to like each other very much, so why are they even together? Although playful in bed at night, during the day he yells at her to leave him alone so he can work and she flirts with the townspeople hired to build their garage. Amy is particularly unlikable, seeming to invite the violence that befalls her and practically forcing her husband into his equally violent response.
This dynamic is exemplified in a scene that first indicates trouble is going to ensue. David finds the missing cat strangled and hanging in his bedroom closet. Emotionless, he lets Amy find it herself. Why doesn’t he say anything to protect her from seeing it? Then he doesn’t believe that one of the workers could have done it; instead, he claims that “anyone” could have wandered into their unlocked house. Why doesn’t he want to face the obvious? Is he afraid of them? He certainly doesn’t want to confront them, regardless of Amy’s belittling of him.
Straw Dogs is filled with ambiguity. When Amy becomes a victim, she alternates between repulsion and lust. What does she really want? And her violation has nothing (that I can figure out) to do with the ultimate showdown; David never even finds out about it. Instead, it’s a random, isolated event that causes the townspeople to attempt to force themselves into his home.
The questions and ambiguity make Straw Dogs unfold like art house horror, as does the cinematography once the violence begins. When people fall, it is in slow motion. When people are intimate, there are fast, back and forth flashes to other people and places. The climax happens with music blasting and ends with the sound of the record scratching when the song ends.
Taglines for the original Straw Dogs read, “The knock at the door mean the birth of one man and the death of seven others!” and “Every man has a breaking point.” It’s obviously supposed to be a study of how far a man can go before he snaps. And it’s very effective at conveying that in a relentless and intense finale. It’s just that getting to that point is a little cerebral for me.
The remake does a subtle, yet thorough job of filling the gaps of the original; it didn’t leave me as confused. First of all, Amy (Kate Bosworth) is more sympathetic. Her actions seem less deliberate and her reactions less cruel. In fact, she and David (James Marsden) are kinder to each other throughout. When he finds the cat in the closet, he warns her not to look. And it’s later clear that she does not want to be a victim. The remake even explains what the heck a “straw dog” is; the original does not.
Straw Dogs (2011) also moves the story from rural England to deep-South Mississippi. That was a wise move by writer-director Rod Lurie (The Contender, The Last Castle, TV’s Commander in Chief). The circumstances automatically make more sense because we’re more familiar with the redneck stereotypes, even though they are treated intelligently here. The setting in Straw Dogs (1971) is foreign in more ways than just the physical location.
The cast is excellent all around. You might think Marsden could not possibly compare to Hoffman, but in some ways he is actually better because he doesn’t have the same reputation. (It’s hard to watch Hoffman in 1971 and not think of all his brilliant performances since then.) Bosworth, whom I normally do not like, is very good. And the supporting cast is filled with familiar television faces: Alexander Skarsgard (True Blood), Dominic Purcell (Prison Break) and Walton Goggins (Justified). Best of all is a nearly-unrecognizable James Woods as the high school’s ex-football coach with a big bar tab and an even bigger chip on his shoulder.
The scripts of both versions are nearly identical in some scenes, but overall, the remake seems more coherent and logical. It does a better job of connecting the two distinct acts of violence. Both movies start slow and are an elaborate set-up for a final explosion of violence. You’d think a 2011 remake of a 1971 movie would be bloodier, but it exercises an impressive amount of restraint. In fact, it avoids a last-minute attempt to surprise the audience and ends on a less existential note than the original.
Speaking of the climax, yet trying not to spoil anthing, there is gruesome plot element that plays an equally important role in both movies. In the original, I saw it coming a mile away. I was therefore expecting it in the remake, so I was not surprised; however, I could tell it caught the audience off guard and was a terrific shock.
I admire Straw Dogs (1971) for its craftsmanship and depth; however, I enjoy Straw Dogs (2011) for its entertainment value. Watch the original if you want to think about what you’re watching, but watch the remake if prefer a more emotional connection. Watch the original if you’re taking a film class, but watch the remake if you want a thrilling and cathartic moviegoing experience.