It’s impossible to judge a remake without taking the original into account. Although the ugliness and gynophobic* discomfort of Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 Straw Dogs may have more to do with the internal loathing and insecurities of its male lead character (the speculative scenarios, and proposed solution, of intense sexual jealousy enacted upon an alien canvas; inviting the audience to follow its masochistic logic: true affection is to be found with a manchild, on a road to nowhere), these ambiguities must be ironed out for its 2011 remake. Slight, needy but intellectually aloof, and perpetually nervous, Dustin Hoffman lacked the vengeful dispassion of Clint Eastwood et al. Handsome, buff yuppie James Marsden may be unconvincing as a cuckold; but his voice, manner and appearance will suggest that he was right all along. In the interests of narrative and thematic exposition, his voice will not tremble or mumble. A shotgun will settle well into his muscled arms, as would his cheerleader-esque wife. His physical appearance and motivation suggests that fellow WASP Kate Bosworth is right for him in a way that ignorant cracker trash will never be. It is doubtful they would enjoy the same HBO dramas – more likely our domestic villains are faithful viewers of Fox News. Marsden ‘earned’ her (in Hollywood!) long before the opening credits. A screenwriter married to an actress? Both professions would welcome their respective presence, if only for career reasons. Not quite the same as a smug, introverted academic and a physically expressive, deeply reluctant housewife of differing age, class, national and cultural background; inarticulate in their mutual resentments. This time, young aspirational Hollywood fights for its honour, as relative equals in sex appeal, verbal coherence and social superiority.
In the Viet Nam era, the original setting (rural England) alluded to the inherent violence of American masculinity when faced with foreign, confusing environments; or indeed challenges to its sense of propriety (of land, of women, of authority). To return its scenario home brings violence… well… back home. Nowadays we’d rather not have young Americans watching other young Americans unleash avoidable carnage where it doesn’t belong (that would be soo 2003). And anyway, there’s a domestic underclass threatening the Homeland. Even the white poor** can be a problem these days, especially if rural, localised and uneducated. They’re the film’s living zombies, inessential labour lacking much in the way of economic or symbolic value (not as much as screenwriters and actresses anyway). Lacking showbiz aspirations, they are what they are. The common generic referent is now the horror movie (region/class conflict), replacing the revisionist western motifs (nation/race) of the original. As a subgenre distinct to the New World, zombies carry elements of the western (structurally the ‘team under seige’ Hawksian Rio Bravo kind, not the racial quests and emerging communities of John Ford, although genocidal instincts remain). Here, Manifest Destiny aims towards gated gentrification, not the expansion/establishment of Law. It is taken as granted, by both film and audience, that the civilizing mission has gone into reverse. The rhetoric of this war, as with many other fronts, promises to violently consolidate what is already enclosed, not advance growth. Crossing frontiers has been replaced by locking doors. Its shiftless, foreclosed good ol’ boy monsters threaten a more primitive method of ‘home invasion’ than any good ol’ bank would (I’ll bet the Sheriff won’t be present for this economic face-off). The production itself will deliver efficient narrative economy, visual and spoken shortcuts in the shared language of movies on the neighbouring screens. This was directed by a man in a state of lucid sobriety, in minimum conflict with his financiers. The values of whom must be displayed clearly in every scene. Its most heated ‘creative’ arguments will be over the editing of the trailer.
It’s doubtful that it will be the subject of much controversy, much less any bans. It will certainly be loud (and louder) and clear about the Unacceptability of Rape (yes, with capitals. This is a film aimed at teenagers/early twentysomethings, preferably urbane but with limited critical faculites); and its female lead will engage in violence much earlier in the story. The producers want us to regard female emancipation as a given, unlike the murkier anxieties of 1971. With a cheap, blank nod to ‘empowerment’ tropes, she will probably supply a cathartic catchphrase as she disposes of the main thug (staged with rapid digital cutting, not analogue slo-mo). I expect Bosworth will perform this scene in a damp vest and/or shorts, perhaps even barefoot. She may even get a chance to torture her assailants beforehand. She will inform the glossier film magazines that the role was “challenging”, but that her director was “very supportive”. Feminist criticism will remain muted in mainstream appraisals, although older critics like Roger Ebert or Armond White may supply some mild grumbles. We’ve moved on from that kind of thing now; but more in the interests of convenient marketing and advertising revenue rather than ‘progress’ (as the civilizing ‘mission’ no longer applies to these products on any level). This time round, you’ll at least be able to look your date in the eye with a clear conscience; when you go for that drink or meal within the same building. Rotten Tomatoes will place it in the mid-50s; as will its moral compass, despite its (post)modern embellishments and open sadism. Few will feel very strongly about it, because the film-makers don’t want you to really feel anything at all. Outside a tiny number of blu-ray cult dorks, it will be largely forgotten within five years. It will simply be there, lost in a sea of other products confirming similar values. Cinematic and economic fascism isn’t the novelty it was forty years ago. It’s become part of the furniture.
*If Peckinpah’s films shared a common pathology, it was his need to choreograph the idea of wounds. He complemented his misogyny with men investing meaning in the many holes they produced in each other. Something they were unable to do with various unfaithful wives and prostitutes (never complete as women, and mainly foreign) populating his films. This remake’s arc will, in all likelihood, fight to maintain the solid surfaces with which its young couple started out with.
**Perhaps as recently as five years ago, this may have been set in an inner-city; or indeed the Old Country (like the eastern Europe of Hostel). However, that could be unpalatable for a ‘post-racial’ post-Bush audience. Wealth is sold as the new white to its target market.