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Straw Dogs (2011): A Treatise on American Masculinity

This post is more an analysis than a review, so SPOILERS ahead for those of you who haven’t seen the film.

Tonight, I finally saw Rod Lurie’s Straw Dogs.  A remake of the 1971 Sam Peckinpah film, which I have not seen, this new version is a thought-provoking exploration of American masculinity and differing attitudes towards violence and women.

The primary conflict in the film is predicated on a dialectic established between two ideals of masculinity: the cultured, educated man of intellect and money, and the muscular, more primal man of violence and manual labor.  These two extremes are embodied by David (James Marsden) as the more erudite man of the mind and Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard) as the testosterone-fueled man of the body.  Lurie plays these two off each other both visually and verbally; David is often shot from under Charlie’s arm, or Charlie is shot looming over the already-shorter David.  While this is primarily meant to create a sense of menace, it also works to diminish David’s masculinity and sense of power.  In the land of the construction workers and hunters, the scholar is not in his element.

Opposing ideals of masculinity in “Straw Dogs”

Over the course of the film, David is constantly reminded of his inability to intimidate, usually by his wife, Amy (Kate Bosworth).  At one point, the local patriarch (James Woods) is beating up a mentally challenged man, and Amy steps in to stop him.  As they’re leaving, she implies that David should have stepped in himself.  When he says it’s against his principles, she tells him that his principles are “convenient.”  The question of when violence is appropriate and necessary is David’s primary concern in the film.  When he finally does embrace the more brutal side of masculinity, he does so in such a way that he uses his intellect to wreak havoc.  With a nail gun, pots of boiling oil (thank you, siege warfare), and a bear trap, he is able to fight off and kill five men.  He unknowingly avenges Amy’s rape and defends his home.

David’s transformation is not portrayed in an entirely positive light, however.  As he looks around at the wreckage of his home and his traumatized wife, the expression on his face shows relief but also a kind of mania.  It is clear that this is something neither he nor Amy can come back from.  In the final shot of the film, he stands silhouetted against the burning barn that was previously being rebuilt, and the message is clear: when men embrace violence, only destruction can come of it.

Other observations:

– I found Amy to be an irritating, inconsistent character from a feminist perspective.  At times, she attempts to make feminist points, such as when she defends her right to go running bra-less (though seriously, who does that?!?) without getting leered at.  Point taken – women are not “asking for it” when men objectify them.  She also steps in to defend Jeremy from Coach, which is a strong move on her part, but afterward tells David he should have done it.  Why should the man be the one to defend the helpless when she is just as capable of doing it herself?  Just as Amy is torn between two worlds, the film seems torn between portraying her as an independent feminist and making her act as though she needs a man to help her.

Seriously! Who goes running like this?!

– The plot with Jeremy (the simple fellow) and the Coach’s daughter felt half-baked.  It’s the catalyst for all the violence towards the end, but it somehow isn’t fully realized or explained.  The scene where she lures him into the locker room, however, is interesting in that it portrays a different kind of rape from the one Amy experiences.  Jeremy says no over and over again, making Janice’s advances on him just as disturbing as the men raping Amy, perhaps more so because we do not understand her motivations.

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