Friday, September 23rd, 2011

'Straw Dogs': 40 Years After The Original, It Still Sucks To Be A Man

Whenever men have described to me what it's like to be male, it sounds friggin' awful—a nonstop blitzkrieg of Hobbesian brutality. Your life, as they depict it, is a war on two fronts: the front that wants to get laid, and will do whatever it takes to do so, and the front that must fight off other men. Both require totally different skill sets, and a loss on either shore is devastating. A friend told me that when he walks down the sidewalk, other (usually larger) men will step in his path to launch a game of Chicken, and they’ll slam into him unless he pulls away. (A guy did that to me once on Hudson Street—I shrieked like a cat in thumbscrews, called him an asshole, and two cops arrived in seconds.) Years of watching agro movies have only reinforced my view that it's dreadful to be a guy. Dress him up in fancy clothes, give him a few Ivy League degrees and a gold AmEx, and the struggle to find his inner Thor only becomes more compelling. 

Which brings us to Straw Dogs.

If you know anything about this movie (no judgments if you don't) you likely know that everyone's bitching that it's not as good as the 1971 original, which was made by Wild Bunch director and famed nihilist Sam Peckinpah. Call his version anti-feminist, call it exploitative: it's been called both (and many other) names for years. But what holds up about his film is its visceral depiction of just how awful it is to be a “nice guy” who gets ripped in half by the opposing forces of civility and survival. 

The simple reason the original is so good is Dustin Hoffman. No one is better at embodying an ostensibly effete intellectual harboring a fucking rage machine deep inside. Hoffman is emotive, he’s emotionally vulnerable and, well, there's no polite way to say this—he's small. Tiny, even. Which, in the chest-thumping department, is an automatic 40 handicap. There's something baseline archetypal in the plight of a small man. His struggle is the struggle, the inescapable fight to triumph over one's immutable circumstances. He can do whatever is in his power—obtain expensive degrees, make bank, build up intellectual capital—to raise his social valuation. But he's never going to be the guy you veer away from on the sidewalk.

When you take this compelling a hero and plunk him down in extreme circumstances—specifically, into a rural town packed with locals who punch holes in his manhood (figuratively), rape his wife (unfiguratively) and attack his house, forcing him to unleash the Paleolith in a spray of plasmic carnage—well, you’ve got a great movie. Add a little Clockwork Orange-ultraviolence, and voila! a cult classic. 

Then there’s the remake, which came to theaters last week. Critics are excoriating its mere existence, which seems pointless; the movie's been made, and people are seeing it, so let’s quit bitching and discuss it on its merits. The fact is that despite its lack of Hoffman-ness (chiseled sensitivity aside, James Marsden is no Dustin Hoffman), this is a perfectly good remake. A loyal-to-the-point-of-lacking-all-imagination remake. In fact, the only real difference is that instead of the perfect hero, you have the perfect villain. Yup, I'm talking about Alexander Skarsgård.

The part Skarsgård plays here is Paragon Alpha, the man who can win on all fronts and serves as a boot in the ass to the socially softened hero. He evokes fear and respect in men while simultaneously compelling women to bang him (in Skarsgård's case, perhaps literally; as the credits rolled, two lesbian friends declared themselves “willing to make an exception”). Skarsgård pretty much runs away with the role; he presents an Alpha that’s every bit as riveting as Hoffman’s beleaguered rabbit.

Beyond Skarsgård’s presence, the remake is little more than a carbon copy of the original, with some minor modernization and a change in setting. A Harvard atheist with Hollywood pedigree rolls his vintage Jag into a rural town and clashes (hard) with the local menfolk. That the setting has changed from rural England to the deep South adds a bit of cultural critique to the proceedings, as the Alpha Males mutate from British hoodlums to gun-toting, whiskey-swilling redneck clichés. But the rubric is the same; they’re all walking chunks of Id and Ego, creating violence in a violent paradigm. The hot blonde wife (Kate Bosworth, looking like she needs a sandwich) is once again merely a vehicle for the men to achieve domination over each other, and the central conflict still comes down to one bloody battle between a sensitive dude and five guys with guns. 

Which isn’t a knee-jerk bad-thing; with all due respect to my estrogen kin, there’s plenty to gain from an honest exploration of masculinity’s ugly underbelly.

And that’s the real point we can take from the remake; that decades after feminism entered the cultural mainstream, after we’ve slogged through all these social and gender reconfigurations, the Act of Being Male still stirs up the same shitstorm it always did. However much we’ve resocialized men away from blatant sexist norms (which we now fetishize with "Mad Men" et al), it still comes down to a simple test: How do you make do with whichever branch of the Masculinity Yggdrasil your ass happened to land on? In the movies, at least, there's still one surefire way to measure a "man's worth"—if he can defend his home and family from other men.

Straw Dogs gets three bloody chainsaws (out of five).

Melissa Lafsky, The Awl's Horror Chick, wants to be scared by your movie.

16 Comments / Post A Comment

KenWheaton (#401)

Short people got no reason.

Abe Sauer (#148)

It seems this had so much potential. To do the obvious (redneck south, really?) seems like such a waste. What about doing a religion showdown thing or setting it in a city. ANYTHING new. Maybe most telling of the times is that I was served a web ad (don't ask) from the site Mr. Skin that teased "Kate Bosworth! Any Nudity in Straw Dogs?"


GailPink (#9,712)

So, Skarsgard has a southern accent in this? Twisted!

Lauren U@twitter (#103,634)

How is "Kate Bosworth, looking like she needs a sandwich" relevant to anything in this article? Love that this whole post is about masculinity and how hard it is to be a man (is this ironic, I can't tell?), and then it unintentionally illustrates how acceptable the policing of women's bodies is.

Multiphasic (#411)

@Lauren U@twitter I believe "Kate Bosworth, looking like she needs a sandwich" is, itself, a needless remake.

Kjle Risch (#3,504)

@Lauren U@twitter This woman has a deep seated psychological disorder caused by societies objectification of women! Someone give her something easy and inexpensive that will mask the visible symptoms!

mcx (#108,125)

@Lauren U@twitter You asking if it's ironic to write about how hard it is to be a man means we get to take your feminism merit badge away. Perhaps if you'd be a bit more reflexive and a bit more understanding of how socialised gender norms work then "all these social and gender reconfigurations" might have gotten us somewhere. Alas, no.

hypnosifl (#9,470)

@mcx I dunno, to the extent you can really talk about it being "hard to be a man" it seems like it's more a matter of society teaching you to repress certain kinds of emotions and communication styles in a way that makes it harder to connect with other people, the issues mentioned in the article seem like they could have been meant at least somewhat ironically, since a) getting laid can be hard for both men and women, and b) personally I don't feel a constant danger of physical confrontation when walking down streets, nor would most men I imagine.

mcx (#108,125)

@hypnosifl There are physical confrontations that men are safer from than women, but I'd argue that male-male violence can arise because men are seen as fair game for physical confrontation in a way that women are not. If I (a male) am in a bar with a female companion she's more likely to be the recipient of a grope or other physical/sexual confrontation but I'm more likely to be the recipient of a punch or a physical/violent confrontation. Where and what kind of confrontation depends on the context and individuals in question but being dismissive of the (often socially acceptable) threat of violence against men (as I took Lauren U to be doing by asking if the article was ironic) further legitimises it and isn't someone who is thinking about gender norms should do.

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

@Lauren U@twitter So, basically, you're deaf to irony but willing to assume it isn't present, and also blissfully unaware that the actress "need[ing] a sandwich" and her role being "merely a vehicle for the men to achieve domination over each other" might have some connection. Maybe even one that the writer is trying to draw attention to! Gosh.

Sutton (#1,490)

@mcx I think the basic difference is that, if a couple is attacked and the man gets horribly beaten, the woman will have emotions of fear, pain, horror, etc, at a loved one being hurt. If the woman gets horribly beaten, the man will have those same emotions plus he will later—even if only in his secret subverted-dominant-paradigm-grad-student-wearing-theory-glasses heart—will also feel he has "failed as a man."

Sutton (#1,490)

@hypnosifl Smile when you say that.

andy2317 (#106,446)

I have to admit I'm a fan of Dustin Hoffman. He was great.

rich bachelor (#8,586)

O Banks1Dana, what sport we had with thee…

The thing is – if you see the original, Dustin isn't defending his home from a bunch of rapists – he's harboring a giant manchild 'Lenny'-style pedophile played by David Warner, because he's a self-righteous liberal shit who considers it his business to interfere in a local lynching. No sooner has Warner been sheltered than he attacks Dustin's wife! Later Dustin slaps his wife! HE is the bad guy. Peckinpah wept when he realized no one understood that.

michael u. (#22,348)

Spoiler Alert: I'm sorry but this was a horrible horrible movie. In every way. Paper thin characters, the worst type of cliches. The lead guy lets her (same aged) friends call him Mister for half the movie? So stupid.

The messy randomness of the plot. She's raped (both gratuitous and unrealistic) and then wants to go to the football game? The antagonist threatens him outside of the church and soon after he willingly goes along hunting with them? I haven't seen such a stupid movie in years and years. Only saw it cause I was on a date and the other movie was sold out. I'm honestly shocked that anyone has anything good to say about it. That's what drew me to this essay. "Someone is defending this garbage?" I thought to myself.

I also disagree about your praise of Skarsgård. He's a good enough actor but I thought his performance was forced and on the nose. That slick transparent "Bad Guy" from the 80s (think James Spader in, well almost everything pre: sex lives & videotape) was thankfully jettisoned for more believable and nuanced creeps since then.

Lastly, it was written and directed by Rod Lurie. What Michael Bay is to thrillers this man is to dramas. A total hack who has serious issues with women.

Okay, I'm done. I haven't read your other reviews so I'll give you the benefit of the doubt. This movie was just so fucking egregiously bad I had to say something to maybe save some peeps the 10 or 12 bucks.

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