Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Straw Dogs: When is sex and violence just sex and violence?

Over the holidays, I attempted to watch the movie Straw Dogs. I couldn't make it through. I found the film's relentless misogyny, violence, ableism and stereotyping of Southerners gross and unwatchable. After shutting off the film, I perused a few reviews to see if critics found it as unpleasant as I did. I was surprised to find that, though the movie was generally poorly reviewed, that many movie experts ascribed to the film some deeper meaning. Where I saw wanton violence, they saw commentary on violence. Where I saw dangerous sexism, they saw an analysis of masculinity. This has me trying to tease out, what criteria are there that confirm whether a piece of art celebrates a negative bit of culture (say, violence, sexism, racism or homophobia) or instead challenges or analyzes it?

The 2011 Straw Dogs is a remake of a 1971 film by the same name, directed by Sam Peckinpah. The original, set in England, starred Dustin Hoffman and Susan George. The reboot moves the action to the Southern United States and features James Marsden (David), Kate Bosworth (Amy) and Alexander Skarsgard (Charlie). Upon her father's death, TV star Amy and her writer husband, David, return to her small, rural Mississippi hometown. Amy is the picture of idealized white womanhood--thin, blonde and desired by every man who strolls into her orbit. David is the stereotypical effete liberal Northerner--bespectacled, pushing a Jag and always exuding a thinly-veiled aura of condescension. By contrast, the residents of Blackwater, Mississippi, are stupid, scruffy, bigoted, hyper religious and menacing, absorbed by Friday night football, hunting and breeding.

Charlie, Amy's high school flame, joins a group of local men in repairing a barn on Amy and David's property. What ensues is a--for lack of a better word--dick-measuring contest between Amy's past and current paramours. Charlie leads his crew in passive-aggressively (heavy on the aggressive) needling the couple. They play loud music early in the morning, barely put in a days work and walk freely into the house--all things David is too reserved to challenge. The posse soon escalates to more threatening behavior, killing the couple's pet cat and making lewd sexual remarks to Amy. Eventually, while his crew lures David on a hunting trip where he is narrowly missed by a bullet and abandoned in the woods, Charlie and another cohort rape Amy.

And this is where I had to stop. I couldn't bear any more.


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