Movies

Reason Writers at the Movies: Peter Suderman Reviews Straw Dogs in The Washington Times

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Reason Associate Editor Peter Suderman reviews director Rod Lurie's Americanized, politicized remake of Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs in today's Washington Times:

For decades, dramatists and filmmakers have followed playwright Anton Chekhov's rule that a gun placed above a mantel at the beginning of a story must be used in the end. "Straw Dogs" ups the ante: Forget the gun hung above the fireplace. What about a bear trap?

Director Rod Lurie's Americanized remake borrows the hanging steel trap, and much else, from Sam Peckinpah's gritty 1971 classic about class, education and social friction in rural England.

Mr. Lurie, who gets a co-writing credit alongside the film's original scripters, has moved the setting to the contemporary American South, but he's also left quite a bit alone. It's a surprisingly respectful adaptation, with many scenes and lines of dialogue remaining virtually unchanged.

But the tweaks he's made don't make the remake any better—quite the opposite. And the bits that remain the same lack the unsettling kick of Peckinpah's original. Mr. Lurie has managed the neat but unfortunate trick of being simultaneously too faithful and not faithful enough.

Whole thing here

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  1. Sam Peckinpah’s gritty 1971 classic about class, education and social friction in rural England.

    Nope. Peckinpah originally conceived the movie to be set in the South, not rural England. He was forced to shoot there because he fell out of favor with Warnor Brothers after going over-budget and over-schedule on The Ballad of Cable Hogue. The movie is about the violent nature of man hiding under a veneer of sophistication. Peckinpah’s intended message had almost nothing to do with “class, education, and rural England.”

    Mr. Peckinpah’s film was a brutal parable about the triumph of the civilized individual.

    This is exactly the opposite of what Peckinpah was trying to put across. Dustin Hoffman’s character is “civilized” until events around him force him to fight and revert to his “true” primal self. This is why the title of the movie is Straw Dogs. A straw dog is a form without substance. Dustin Hoffman’s civilized image is a form without substance. Peckinpah is arguing that man’s true substance is violence. Up until the end of the film, Hoffman’s meekness is contrasted with the brutality of the villagers. Then that meekness is ripped away to reveal that both the protagonist and antagonists share the same primal violence. They are all straw dogs.

    1. “class, education and social friction in rural England.”

      “Nope.”

      Yup. Like it or not, the setting of the original film is in rural England, not the American South.

      1. Neither setting is inherent to the point of the movie.

        1. Only if you want the setting of the movie to be true to the (rape-free) book!

    2. Damn. You know your material heller.

      And I agree; I don’t buy the “triumph of the civilized individual” idea at all. Its a bit hard to swallow that interpretation when the ‘civilized’ lead character only ‘triumphs’ when he goes caveman/apeshit and brutally kills fuckers with improvised weapons.

      I also agree that i’m not sure there was ever any real intent to make the issue about ‘class’ (in the original, at least) so much, although it seems inevitable people would take that away as a superficial read given the UK setting.

      I’ll also second Tim’s comment below about the questionable need for a remake; I thought the original was worth one watch-through, but wasn’t exceptional. I can’t imagine why they decided to recycle this of all things. Probably because it had cheap-ish below-the-line-costs (e.g. set, labor requirements, wardrobe, etc) and could be made very quickly. In the original at least, I recall 90% of the movie taking place all in that one house.

      Unlike Tim, I was not excited by the rape scene.

      1. Just a big Peckinpah fan.

        1. You should’ve caught the “bear trap” error.

    3. blockquote>The movie is about the violent nature of man hiding under a veneer of sophistication. Peckinpah’s intended message had almost nothing to do with “class, education, and rural England.”

      I’m not sure I think these two ideas are incompatible.

      And you’re right that Peckinpah’s film is about the violence that lurks inside all of us. But Hoffman’s character doesn’t give in to pure animal rage. First of all, he’s clever: He keeps his cool, uses traps, and baits the more animalistic intruders. Second of all, he’s defending more than his person and property. He’s also defending his principles — the idea that a man’s home is his own, but also that a simpleton (the rapist) shouldn’t be brutalized, and probably executed, simply because an angry mob wants to see him hurt. Civilized Man doesn’t merely revert to his animal self — he uses his intelligence to defend advanced moral principles.

      1. Well, I botched that html, didn’t I?

        1. So much for layers of oversight.

        2. You sure did. Preview is your friend!

      2. That’s a fair analysis, but if you look at this movie in the context of his other works, such as the Wild Bunch, IMO Peckinpah didn’t wan’t to differentiate between the violence of the good guys and the bad guys. He wanted to break away from the Hollywood cliche of poetic justice and show something real and morally ambiguous. And I’m sure Peckinpah saw the instinctual defense of the home as a territorial instinct, not so much as a “civilized” principle. But of course, Peckinpah is not bound by libertarian thought on this subject.

        1. If I take your word for it, Peckinpah’s not making a moral statement, something modern Hollywood can’t stop itself from doing.

          That said, Peckinpah’s original still sucked. The drunk idiots were far too rationally functional,the end was far-fetched, and the close-ups became annoying; people like to pretend it was done for mood, but close-ups have almost always been substitutes for shitty direction and botched takes, especially when overdone. Any statement about man’s true nature was undermined by having to suspend far too much disbelief.

          The modern version is probably just a completely different kind of suckage. A screenwriter is basically a fraud compared to a math professor, so right there we’ve got modern suckitude all over it, Hollywood patting itself on the back for the umpteenth time.

          1. I don’t think a lack of strict adherence to realism took away anything from the movie. In fact it was beneficial and necessary for the over-all affect. There’s a sense of madness that sure, isn’t perfectly realistic, but provokes a sens of disgust or shock in the viewer. Remember that Peckinpah was trying to uncover what was beneath, not just mimic the facade. Exaggeration is a small price to pay for the emotional weight of this movie.

        2. You’re really hung up on the auteur theory there Mr Pixie.

      3. Civilized Man doesn’t merely revert to his animal self — he uses his intelligence to defend advanced moral principles.

        ‘And Suderman counters with a left hook! Quick jab to the sternum, and an uppercut… heller stumbles…’

        Touche.

        I havent seen the original in a few years, but I do recall the elements you’re talking about, and think you make a pretty compelling case for it.

        I dont remember the lead killer sparing the rapist?… missed that one.

        I agree it wasnt a straightforward ‘a beast lurks inside every man’/’Lord of the Flies’-type story… but I wasnt hit over the head with the triumph of ‘morality’/principles bit. Maybe I take a lot of Peckinpah movies and blend them together in my head, and assume they’re all basically ruthless and cynical and always try to muddy traditional ideas of good/bad right/wrong…semi nihilistic. You make a decent case for a more optimistic Peckinpah

        1. if you look at this movie in the context of his other works, such as the Wild Bunch, IMO Peckinpah didn’t wan’t to differentiate between the violence of the good guys and the bad guys

          thats exactly what I was saying. but i think its possible that maybe those other films might be biasing you (me) towards the more amoral reading of Straw Dogs, when maybe there’s a case to be made that it isnt 100% like that.

          That said, Peckinpah’s original still sucked

          meh. i think it was OK. I agree with some of your points on the close-ups, and the plausibility bit, but I think a lot of that was pretty much par for the course for the late 60s/early 70s. I think what was appreciable about the film is its raw character, unhollywood-ish-ness (har), lack of an obvious morality play… rape… the real-time-ish pacing of the siege sequence…rape… dustin hoffman not being a total pussy…

          Yeah, but its definitely no Wild Bunch. Or The Getaway. Not a film you cuddle on the couch with your girlfriend to.

        2. As I said above, that’s sort of the libertarian interpretation of the events of the movie. Peckinpah ain’t no libertarian.

    4. Bravo Heller. Can’t they get you to write these reviews?

    5. It was pretty handy for Peckinph that the source material (novel) was set in… rural England!

  2. Reason is always arguing that a straw dog is a straw man’s best friend, but I contend that assertion is a veneer hiding the real point.

    1. That straw dogs are best shot with hay bullets?

      1. Ha ha, well done, Jeffersonian.

  3. I remember the original being a stone bore other than the rape scene. This will be of interest to Kate Bosworth completists, but I’d rather sit through Blue Crush 2 than a remake of a movie that was a chore to sit through the first time.

    1. Is there any surfing in this one? 🙂

      I remember the siege scene in the original being pretty tense/exciting.

    2. Oh come on, it’s one of the tensest movies ever made! Sure the build-up is gradual, but that is completely necessary for the tension to work. Everything gets wound up tighter and tighter until an explosively violent ending. Philistine!

    3. Both boring and annoying at the same time…easily his worst film.

  4. Uhm.

    The link there…? (“… in today’s Washington Times:”)

    Links to his review of ‘Drive’

    The “Whole thing here” links to ‘Straw Dogs’ review.

  5. Huh. Wouldn’t it make more sense for Suderman and Loder to do different things? Like, Suderman could review movies and music videos, and KL could review games.

    1. cynical|9.16.11 @ 2:22PM|#
      Huh. Wouldn’t it make more sense for Suderman and Loder to do different things?

      Other people have made this comment before.

      I’m just speculating… but I think the point is, Reason doesn’t pay 100% these guys bills, and they both/all get extra work where and when they can. The fact they’re working the same beat is maybe a coincidence, but probably unavoidable from the Reason POV. Or rather, they dont have any particular say in the matter. They highlight/promote all the staffs’ work though, obviously.

  6. I remember the original being a stone bore other than the rape scene.

    I re-watched it yesterday, because summaries of it in reviews of the remake (which sounds terrible and dumb) have been pissing me off (because they’re terrible and dumb).

    It is boring, but it’s the superior ’70s boring, where there’s at least something interestingly framed to stare at while you get your dude-this-is-just-like-life ennui on, not the kids-these-days kind of boring where you’re just waiting for someone to go “I threw up in my mouth a little” or say Fox News sucks.

    1. It is boring, but it’s the superior ’70s boring,

      I know exactly what you mean. I’ve always chalked it up to everyone being stoned, so you get kind of a glassy-eyed effect over everything. And it totally works as pacing, framing, etc. if you happen to be stoned while watching it.

      Current boring is because the movies are just too fucking stupid to hold your interest.

  7. Anton Chekhov’s rule that a gun placed above a mantel at the beginning of a story must be used in the end.

    Once Nikolai Gogol wrote a play where a big huge gun was placed on the mantle in the beginning and never once used it. He just wanted to fuck with audience’s head. And it worked — they kept wondering when was the gun gonna be used.

    But then, Gogol broke every rule there was.

    1. He even used his overcoat as hammerspace as I understand it.

  8. Don’t fuck with Sam Peckinpah.

  9. I know I saw it when it originally came out, but I have no recollection of anything which happened in it, which is generally not a good sign. I have no idea what it was even supposed to be about. Apparently some toffee-nosed hogwash about primal ape violence lurking beneath the thin veneer of civilization. Okay, whatever.

    I did, however, see Senna when I was in Indianapolis. Excellent.

    1. I need to go see that this weekend with the boy. I’ve heard nothing but praise about it.

  10. Current boring is because the movies are just too fucking stupid to hold your interest.

    Yup.

    That, and, “Sorry, but I just don’t give a shit what happens to any of the characters in this movie.”

  11. I’ve seen the original and was baffled when I heard about the remake. Any movie whose finale can be summarized as “Dustin Hoffman becomes a vengeance fueled killing machine” has problems.

  12. Somebody tell Suderman that in the Peckinpah movie it is a man trap not a “bear trap”.
    (Are you writing your review from the fucking press kit like Loder does?)
    The only bears in England for the last thousand or so years were domesticated so any English bear traps would be “foreign market goods”.

    1. So there aren’t big, hairy gay dudes in England?

      1. Thread winner.

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