Saturday, April 14, 2012

Straw Dogs gave me nightmares

Literally. Vivid, disturbing, grateful-the-cat-woke-me-up-before-they-got-worse nightmares. Clearly the remake (never seen the original--more on that later) got under my skin, or at least under my conscious. But I still haven't worked out how I feel about it. I *think* it's terrible for men and women. Probably. Possibly? If anyone's seen it, please let me know so we can discuss. I need to talk it out.

The 2011 version follows Cyclops and Blue Crush, er, James Marsden and Kate Bosworth, as they return to her small hometown in Mississippi. Amy's become a moderately famous actress, and David her screenwriting husband. He, and more importantly, his particular performance of masculinity, is immediately put in conversation and competition with Amy's former boyfriend Charlie (Erik the Vampire) and his merry band of good ole boys. The film is not subtle in its portrayal of this conflict. Marsden's David wears glasses and soft and natural fabrics, likes classical music and chess, and is a writer working on a script about the siege of Stalingrad who skips rope for exercise. Charlie is a carpenter, a hunter, a former football player and, thanks to Alexander Sarsgard bringing his body to the role, a giant who is absolutely ripped.

I think it matters that I primarily described David through things he has and Charlie through things he does. The division between the two characters' masculinity is so mind/body--and the phallic symbols are used early and often as well--as to be almost cartoonish. That is, until the violence starts. Even though that's a bit cartoonish as well, but that doesn't make it any less brutal or terrifying when the battle the film has been casting as inevitable, well, inevitably erupts, first on Amy's body, and then on their home. Who wins this confrontation, and how it is won, seems to be where the argument about the "right" kind of man to be is made.

When Charlie and his friends surround David and Amy's house through a pretty weakly fleshed-out subplot involving a scenery-chewing James Woods (is there any other kind?), David's academic interests become practically valuable, and he inhabits an easy confidence as he defends his wife and home that is very appealing, and also very upsetting in its appeal. If we are to abhor Charlie's brutality, what happens to David when he appropriates it so successfully, even for the "right reasons"? Is the film suggesting that all men are inherently capable of and skilled at violence, and that is not only true but right? And what of conflating Charlie's brand of manliness with a Southern regional identity? These are intriguing questions to ask, and I don't think the film was cognizant enough of the seriousness and importance of the claims it was making, and that was disappointing.

I wonder if the original, which was directed by Sam Peckinpah and came out in 1971, is more careful with its subject matter. I think the time period, when masculinity, particularly the "new man" was very much in flux, might have better served the plot. Additionally, the setting is an American coming to England rather than a Californian coming to the deep South, which I think could invoke and play with the Yankee cowboy stereotype in all sorts of interesting ways--it was directed by Peckinpah, after all. Can't wait for its number to come up on the 1001 blog!

1 comment:

  1. I've been on the fence about watching this movie. I want to see it, but I'm scared.