Although I, unfortunately, have never seen Sam Peckinpah’s original Straw Dogs, I’ve heard plenty about it. I was told about its uncomfortable rape scenes, off-putting violence and general nihilism. The more I heard, the more it sounded like a spiritual companion to Last House on the Left, a film (or two if you include the remake) that I simply cannot handle. That movie is sick, twisted and it disguises evil as good, looking at the world from a pessimistic, animalistic viewpoint. I wasn’t exactly a fan of that film and the trailers for the remake of Straw Dogs, which looked so similar to that movie, didn’t get me particularly excited, but after seeing it, the contrast between the two is clear. Straw Dogs isn’t sensationalism. It may get a rise out of its viewers, but that’s not its goal. It aims to tell a story, albeit a dark and violent one, and it does it well. If you can stomach it, it’s well worth seeing.
David (James Marsden) and Amy (Kate Bosworth) are a happily married couple. They both work in show business, David a writer and Amy an actress, where they met one day while working on the same television program. Now, they are getting away from the glitz and glamour of the Hollywood lifestyle and heading to Blackwater, Mississippi, Amy’s hometown. Upon arriving, they run into Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard), Amy’s high school boyfriend. He and his buddies have a contracting business and they are employed by David and Amy to fix their shed, which lost some of its roof thanks to a recent hurricane. As time goes on and Charlie begins to manipulate David, tension mounts, inevitably leading to a violent confrontation.
Straw Dogs is a smart movie that doesn’t feel gratuitous like many other similar films, including the aforementioned Last House on the Left. It doesn’t jump right into the abyss, eager to get to the bloodshed. No, it takes the time to build its characters up before killing them off. The tension builds not through attempts at excessive style or moody music or jump scares; it slowly percolates through dialogue and character interaction, which is no small feat. By the time the bloody end rolls around, you’ve invested yourself in what’s going on and it’s practically guaranteed to get your heart pumping like you just ran a marathon.
What disappoints, however, is how we end up reaching that bloody end. Throughout the film, there’s a bout of wits between Charlie and David. Neither likes the other, David aware of Charlie’s lust for his wife and Charlie seeing David as an unworthy companion to the girl he used to love. There’s also an odd sexual connection between Charlie and Amy; some of Amy’s bizarre actions are evidence enough of that. The way these are presented in the film is more than enough to make us believe violence could erupt, but the film instead relies on its B story to get us there. It involves an autistic man and a 15 year old cheerleader that goes nowhere fast, other than to set up a narrative contrivance that will lead the man into David and Amy’s home while the cheerleader’s father, alongside Charlie and his goons, stands outside with weapons demanding his head.
The way the film ultimately gets there is unsatisfactory, but at the same time, that route gives it a moral compass. David refuses to give up the man because he knows the guys outside will severely harm or even kill him. He knows keeping him in the house will lead to violence, but he doesn’t have it in him to turn over a man who is unable to comprehend what he did. Unlike Last House on the Left, where the “heroes” sought out their victims in the middle of the night and killed them in cold blood, David is protecting someone. He only kills because he has to.
If nothing else, that is what sets Straw Dogs apart from the rest of the pack, a likable main character who doesn’t try to justify his actions with flimsy reasoning. The film doesn’t romanticize the violence he inflicts on his attackers and it treats an earlier rape scene as it is, as an awful, soul crushing event. It’s not the most technically accomplished film ever made, but it knows what it’s doing. It works in its own crazy way and, though it’s certainly not for everybody, it’s one to keep your eye on.
Straw Dogs receives 3.5/5