Summer 2011 failed to produce enjoyable cinema for me. After Columbiana it’s a wonder that I even ventured back to the theater at all. I was almost duped into seeing Contagion, but was forewarned that it’s not much more than a two-hour infomercial on the importance of hand-washing. Then came Straw Dogs. I have to say, this movie pleasantly surprised me, but I’m sure it’s only because it's a remake of a 1971 film—a time when movies as a whole had more depth and substance.
Straw Dogs proved to be great on many levels because it is part social commentary, part anthropological exploration, and part Cold War containment. As a layered film, it provides a little something for everyone: action for the moviegoer not interested in thinking too hard, a provocative probing of conflicting masculinity ideals for the more astute film buff, and a good old blue-blood American capitalism versus Russian Communism allegory for the erudite viewer.
SIGNS, SIGNFIERS, & MAN-MAKING
The film's symbols are impossible to miss. The cast is strategically structured across a continuum that builds suspense as the audience is asked to conjecture which direction the main characters will develop. Though there are many men in the film, they can really all be reduced to one. Coach Milkens, David Sumner, Charlie and the white trash town hoard, and Jeremy Niles are all really the same character. These men can be said to emanate as psychological projections of David’s character who is curiously in flux before our very eyes. They are pieces of a whole who constitute what lies within David and begs to be brought out, making him “a real man.” This is evident at the films opening as David looks at the guns hanging on the cabin wall—phallic extensions that signify David’s own lack of masculinity and signal to the audience that the journey we are about to embark upon is one that will eventually put these menacing phalluses in David’s hands, rendering him whole. He is feminized from the very beginning—bookish, artistic, rich, educated, riding around in his tiny little (phallic) Jaguar with the inauthentic hood ornament. His own wife doesn’t respect him. She makes this painfully clear as he attempts to seduce her, tracing chess pieces along her body as she, with closed eyes, guesses what each piece is. To his embarrassment she guesses that the tiniest piece, the pawn, is David’s penis.
Not a character from the original film, Coach Milkens is the ne plus ultra of hypermasculinity; he embodies the extreme of what David can possibly become. Beneath Milkens are Charlie Venner and his brood of blue collar laborers who, though absent the rage of Coach Milkens, are still hypermasculinized in a way that puts them a step above David on the social continuum. At the low extreme of that continuum, however, is Jeremy Niles—totally emasculated, mentally handicapped, and oblivious to reality. Niles is pushed around and whipped frequently by Coach Milkens and practically anyone else who wishes to do so. David must negotiate within himself whether he will go the extreme route of Coach Milkens or lose all of his agency and become not only feminized, but obliviously void of agency like Niles. David is eager to declare Niles the “Straw Dog”— a gutted disposable shell of a man—yet he does not realize that he himself is really the straw dog. At the close of the film when David is adamantly trying to protect Niles (whom he really does not "know"), the question moviegoers are inclined to ask is Why? If you consider that Niles is a mere projection, it is clear that David is not protecting another man, he is metaphorically protecting a part of himself. Niles then, is a mere doppelganger, a sacred innocence brought to life whom David must protect.
In the same way these men combine to place projections of David on the screen, there are a few characters who may also be symbolically reduced to one woman: Amy Sumner. The pure white virginal pussycat and the duplicitously emblematic cheerleader (who both suffer the same fate of suffocation/asphyxiation), are mere psychological projections of Sumner. She is the suffocated pussy who only exists to validate David’s masculinity and man-status, (or to take it away from him based upon how he chooses to play the hand dealt to him). She is essentially a gateway (or bridge) to his development, ever challenging him to man up and grow a pair, (which he ultimately does, but with consequence). What is missing from the 2011 remake that would have added substantially to the ending is the original ending in which Niles states to David: “I don’t know who I am” and David replies, “Neither do I.” He loses himself in the process of developing his metaphorical gonads, having been reduced to the level of the men that he has all along thought himself socially better than. At the apex of his ascent to manhood, he reaches the nadir point of his humanity. The clear philosophical question is whether or not men are legibly their least when rendering their legibly debatable "greatest" masculine performance.
The writers put masculine ideals in conflict with one another—a trope also exemplified through the football metaphor—creating tension, and ask the audience to consider whether one performance of masculinity truly trumps the other at the point when the deficiencies of both become completely obvious. Men are animalistic and hedonistic by nature, but perhaps that animal is best kept caged, for when he is released, everything is destroyed. Masculinity rests on a continuum wherein the middle ground is not such an awful place to be though society is constantly pulling on us to declare our subscription to either of its antipodal ends. In the end, all of the symbols of David’s masculine middle(class) ground are destroyed: his tiny little phallic car, his great big rustic mansion, his bookish spectacles are broken, and his barn—a storehouse for his goods and supply— is burned to the ground. He is reduced, broken, and attenuated in the name of protecting his not so pure pussy cat from being asphyxiated to death, and we are asked to consider who did more damage to her— middle-ground, feminized, ball-less David, or raging Charlie & Gang who raped her and took from her a virtue she never really possessed in the first place. While David was out in the woods shooting a prize-winning buck (which NO ONE saw happen)—thinking he was becoming a man—the townsmen were in his home, raping his wife. He left his gateway unguarded and forfeited the true route to his so-called manhood. David went to war to protect an idealized woman who, from the beginning, was sexually and morally ruined. She attempts to change the year of his manuscript from 1943 to 1944—a change meant to reflect her wish to change herself,—but Charlie scathingly reminds her that the year was really 1943, signifying that no matter how she tried to reinvent herself, the town and its men knew the truth of her history and it could not be rewritten; once a whore, always a whore.
KILL THE COMMIE BASTARD
Straw Dogs also explores the 1971 Cold War preoccupation with the concept of "containment." David exemplifies a form of communism that Americans believed could not be allowed to spread. The first obvious sign is the manuscript he is writing about Stalin. Secondary to his intellectual focus point, however, is the communist way he lives his life. He is financially well off, and spreads money around on a whim to people who have not earned it. He pays the laborers who are doing work on his home $5000 for work they had not completed. He does not believe in the Judeo-Christian God of the community, which proves to be a major offense. He offers frequently to pay for drinks at the bar for customers he did not know—yet another offense. Money is no obstacle for him. This points the viewer in the direction of communism’s principle of “to each according to his need.” That principle is in direct opposition to the American capitalism Charlie and his crew exemplify. In capitalism, the celebrated belief is “to each according to his ability”—men must earn what they obtain. When this system is disrupted—as when David pays the men to go away—chaos resonates, and its source must be exterminated. It is the classic bourgeoisie versus proletariat battle brought to the screen.
The communal belief is that communism itself, with all of its liberal ideas, must be contained and confounded, just as David’s barn (storehouse) is burned to the ground at the film’s end. But not only is he a communist, so is Amy. Her liberal/liberated femininity/sexuality was a major Cold War concern as well. This is born out by David’s suggestion that she “put on a bra” and "contain" her symbolic breasts instead of running around flopping all over the place. Though he is a communist/socialist, he attempts to impose a level of containment on Amy because she is the center of his conflict with the townsmen. The film posits that women are the root of all evil and conflict in the world of men. That which men do in the way of war, can ultimately be reduced to acts of protection and containment, emanating from his need to possess and protect women (and children—who, in the minds of men are analogous to one another) and thereby prove his dominant status in the world he lives in. Women must be dominated, contained, and controlled, and the communist woman must not be allowed to spread her liberal rhetorics around the world—an idea brought forth by Amy’s television appearance, which can be viewed as her potential to affect and infect others. Sheer genius.
In the end, the communist is stripped of the accoutrements that make him a threat: the storehouse/barn (a money symbol), a questionably virtuous woman, prosperity (the tiny phallic car), and property. Note that the car is not destroyed until, first, its faux penile hood ornament is knocked off—a symbolic castration. Though he finally has the symbolic penis from the wall in his hand and has effectively attached it to his being, at the film's denouement he has been brought low. The capitalists have been wiped out (an act that could only occur after removing the juridical restraint of law exemplified by murdering the unrespected black Sheriff), but what is left is the suggestion that none of this would have happened if the communist had not asserted himself and stayed out of the capitalist’s milieu. David, the communist, brought chaos, and destroyed the social order of the idealized, blue-blooded, fictive, American town.
Straw Dogs is far more than an action film and much more than entertainment; it is a piece of history. Though the original film was very controversial due to the prolonged rape scene, its underlying messages trump the shock and awe reaction of offended American sensibilities. It would be WONDERFUL if modern day film makers could take up a cause of some sort and return to making movies with depth. Until such time, we'll have to make due with ballsy remakes.