There must be something sinister about small southern towns because recently, they play host to various different thriller/horror flicks. ‘Straw Dogs,’ written and directed by Rod Lurie, is based on an earlier 1971 version of the film, adapted to the screen by David Goodman and Sam Peckinpah, which is based on Gordon Williams’ novel The Siege of Trencher’s Farm (1969). The book, much like the 1971 film, is set in England and features a young American mathematician and his English wife who face an increasingly hostile environment with the locals. The current version of the film relocates the characters to Blackwater, Mississippi, bringing the story a little closer to home and making it a bit more identifiable to Americans who grew up in similar towns.
By all accounts, ‘Straw Dogs’ succeeds as a thriller through its offering of ambiguity and tension. Los Angeles screenwriter David Sumner (James Marsden) moves to Blackwater, the place where his wife Amy (Kate Bosworth) grew up, in search of a more creatively conducive environment to write his screenplay. Amy’s instantly recognized by the locals, but their recognition extends far beyond the scope of friendly, southern small-talk and soon turns into a hostile situation of life or death – led by Amy’s high school romance Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard).
The 1971 version was memorable because of its controversial rape scene (that wasn’t in the novel) and its blunt, excessive violence. The current version possesses the same qualities, in that the violence is extremely forward and the rape scene is chilling and extremely uncomfortable – but perhaps the strength for this version lies more in the psychological portrayals of the characters. For example, “Coach” Tom Heddon (James Woods), the town’s everlasting football coach (and anyone from a small town with southern roots can appreciate the feelings and polarization of these types of characters) is also the resident drunk whose idolized by those like him, those “Straw Dogs” (people who are big stars in high school football and go nowhere and become nobody outside of their community), and loathed by those who fear him. Coach Heddon is unstable and while the alcohol plays a significant role in his instability, he’s genuinely a physically violent person and his violence and disregard for others is not discriminatory. In fact, in the film, his daughter Janice (Willa Holland), a 15-year old cheerleader, has an affinity for a mentally disabled man named Jeremy Niles (Dominic Purcell). Despite Jeremy’s own opposition, Janice’s advances know no boundaries while Jeremy draws the ire of “Coach.”
The role of Jeremy is minute and completely ambiguous, but is pivotal in the telling of this story. Who is Jeremy? Purcell executes the role convincingly and enough mystery surrounds the character that it’s easy to be drawn in and to be left questioning, “Has this happened before?” In fact, I personally found the relationship between Jeremy/Janice and the role of Janice even, to be easily one of the most controversial parts of the entire film. Here, you have an innocent being pursued by an adolescent with intent, whose father becomes increasingly intolerant and violent toward Jeremy – is this Jeremy or Janice’s fault? What are her objectives?
It’s that level of uncertainty that works for ‘Straw Dogs.’ Those awkward, ambigous moments extend far into the other characters as well – why is Charlie obsessed with Amy? What is the back story? Why does Amy act the way she does – is she empowered or is she submissive – who is Amy and what does she want from David? Moreover, who is David? Is he a genuinely nice guy that reaches a breaking point or is he a domineering man who sees his needs satisfied first? I think all of these questions will have subjective responses that vary from person to person. An example would be when Amy is jogging sans bra and the roofing crew is “practically licking” her – David suggests she may be asking for it and if she doesn’t like it, wear a bra. Many questions arise from that scene – why does he blame her for feeling uncomfortable while jogging around her own home? And then the subsequent scene occurs and it’s a head scratcher.
Uncertainty generally leads to unease as they create opinions and thoughts in conflict with one another. Ironically, the film itself isn’t scary, it’s more challenging to the mind and to individual principles and values. There’s a scene in/around church that challenges religious views. Is it rude to leave mid-sermon? Or is it more absurd to preach about how God will help your cherished football team? Questions like those challenge the viewers and will most certainly place values in conflict. Of course, as mentioned, those of us from/around small southern towns that worship football will identify with this film almost immediately. The “small town” archetypes are in full force – grown up, former football stars working as local laborers, the familiar-with-everyone police officer, the trashy, slutty waitress, the pregnant group of women removed from cheerleading fame and the people who left the town for success but came back to their roots at a later date. It’s all here and if it weren’t for some of the unrealistic CGI deer (really?), this story could almost boast a “based on a true story” tag. It’s authentic and believable enough to be inspired by true events – albeit some of the violence is a bit farfetched and in some parts, the score may just be a little hokey and some of the technical aspects (such as camera control and cinematography) were a bit shaky and lax.
‘Straw Dogs’ is worth a view – personally, I thought it was time for a violence-infused, psycho-thriller to hit the box office and oddly and ironically enough, I found it to be quite entertaining without being too cliche (Shark Night 3D). Violence is clearly desensitized if I were to be judging based on the audience reaction to the final moments as cheers of approval, laughter in the form of “oh damn,” and snorts were heard throughout the theater.
There is a real “going somewhere with this story” behind the actions of the film and it was a nice, solid work overall. ‘Straw Dogs’ is rated R and runs 110 minutes.