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Sex in “Straw Dogs”: The remake of a rape

Sex in “Straw Dogs”: The remake of a rape (photo)

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In some ways, Straw Dogs is an odd choice for a remake – for a movie about “asking for it,” it certainly wasn’t. Nor, as Monday’s box office results reflect, was much of an audience asking for it, either. (It came in fifth place).

Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 original was reviled, most notably by Peckinpah champion Pauline Kael, as “sexual fascism.” A key scene – a double rape – provoked arguments about the director’s motivation, since the picture seemed to argue that the woman was “asking for it,” which Peckinpah himself confirmed in an infamous Playboy interview. (In that same interview, he also claimed that most women were whores, and if they weren’t, they weren’t being honest.)

So why remake a film noted for its misogyny? “That’s the very reason to make this film in the first place,” director Rod Lurie explained on the red carpet at a Cinema Society screening last week. He calls it an “intellectual exercise”: “How do you tell the same story, eliminate his philosophy, and put mine into it? Is it possible?”

Let’s see. For starters, both “Straw Dogs” are based on a book – The Siege of Trencher’s Farm, in which there is no rape, and the main violence is a home invasion. The rape comes about, in the original, partly because the female character, Amy Sumner (played by Susan George), has been walking around without a bra on and has accidentally revealed her breasts to some construction workers; but then upon realizing that they’re staring at her through the window, she lingers to let them look.

Her new husband, David (played by Dustin Hoffman), is presented as a pacifist intellectual, who isn’t around to defend her at the crucial moment – because he allowed himself to be tricked earlier, and failed to take a stand when the workers committed their first act of violence: hanging the family cat in the closet. When the first rape happens, Amy barely struggles, and even expresses pleasure. “People often asked, ‘Why is she smiling? Why is she cuddling with her rapist?'” Lurie noted. And the danger with that presentation, he said, is “there were young boys watching this film who went, ‘She said no, but he f—ed her, and she’s OK with it.'”

The rape scene was part of a larger issue, however – a philosophy Peckinpah believed in called the “territorial imperative.” “It said that all men are genetically coded to violence.” Lurie said. “And so the most violent among us are going to be in charge. The woman will not gravitate to the best man for them, they’re going to gravitate to the alpha male — to the biggest bull in the herd.” This is why, after the rape, Amy’s loyalty seems divided – the rapist seems to understand her more than her husband does, and she only seems to respect her husband after he kills several men defending their home.

“I’m not buying into that whatsoever,” Lurie said. “So what you’ll find in my version of the film, it doesn’t go that way at all.”

Lurie changed the setting from Cornwall, England, to the South, to place the action in a small town where football, hunting, and churchgoing are the major pastimes. “They have preachers talking about a vengeful God who will spite you from the earth; and the flood, and Armageddon,” he said. So while Lurie does not agree with Peckinpah that human beings are normally conditioned to violence, in this town, they are, “like it’s no big deal to them.” And his David (played by James Marsden) hasn’t been raised with violence in his life, “except what he reads in history.” (In the movie, David is scripting a film about the WWII battle of Stalingrad, a battle which was partly fought by women with brooms and kids with bricks, “a metaphor for everything that happens in the film,” Lurie said).

“We’re capable of violence if we’re protecting ourselves,” Lurie said. “So when David becomes violent at the end, it’s because he has to, not because, like in the Peckinpah film, there’s a rage being released that was there anyway.”

And when that violence at the end happens in the remake, David is not alone in defending his home. “By the end of the original, everyone jumps ship. Even his wife deserts him,” Marsden said. “In this film, they sort of stay together as a couple, and fight together. And throughout, they’ve had more discussion as a couple, like about the doors being locked.”

The couple also have more discussion about whether it’s appropriate for Amy (played by Kate Bosworth) to go braless, after she complains about men ogling her – which is what prompts her to reveal her breasts in the first place, because this time, it’s no accident. It’s a strange scene – if construction workers were ogling you, and it made you angry, would you take your top off for them in response? And then, the crucial point, even if you did, does that mean you’re “asking for it”? “I don’t know any woman that enjoys that notion,” Lurie said.

“To be honest with you, what intrigued me about the film is how gray it is,” Bosworth said. “I have so many questions about the original. And I have questions about our movie! I have questions about my character, still. It really is one of those films you never quite have the answers to.”

When the rape finally happens in this film, it’s more clear than in the first that Amy and Charlie (played by Alexander Skarsgård) have had a past relationship. “With Charlie, it’s not really rape,” Skarsgård said. “He thinks, there’s this woman, she wants him, and they’re going to be together forever. And when she rejects him, he’s like, ‘I offered you my protection for life. You said no. This is what happens.’ So it’s very primal, on an animalistic level. ‘You didn’t want that? This is what happens.'”

While Amy doesn’t fight back as much during the rape this time, her rapist is also much bigger. (Plus, he’s Eric Northman!) But she doesn’t treat it like ex-sex, either. “I think it’s a little more clear that she’s not enjoying this thing done to her,” Bosworth added. “That was more murky in the original.”

“Our leading lady is certainly much more fierce and more modern than Susan George’s character,” Marsden said, “and a little less ambivalent in that defining scene.”

While it’s commendable to not eroticize rape, as the original does, it leaves the remake without much of a point. Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs” had an argument to make – an argument many disagreed with, but an argument nonetheless, about what makes a man a man, and what women supposedly really want. Does excising that leave much of a picture left? Lurie said it does.

“Our Amy is a fierce Amy,” Lurie said. “She’s a feminist Amy. She’s an Amy of 2011.”

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