Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Everyday Realities of Straw Dogs

Robert Lockwood, Jr.--"Little Boy Blues" (mp3)

NOTE: This post contains significant plot details and "spoilers," mostly since this story has been around for  at least 40 years.
Perhaps the most difficult movie to watch for a male of a certain type is Straw Dogs, in either of its incarnations. I have seen both versions, having recently watched last year's update, which relocates the story from Scotland, I think, to the Deep South. While the remake increases the B-movie quality of the original (does anyone even admit that there are B movies anymore?), it basically cops the original script and feel, so a viewer feels closer to that scene-by-scene reshoot of Pyscho from a few years ago than you might think.

If you don't know the story, it would appear to be the ultimate male fantasy--in a way. Physically-unimposing guy returns with new, hot wife to her hometown and, through a series of conflicts, defends his home, in a life or death situation, against a group of local thugs out for blood. They mean to kill. He must overcome five of them. He succeeds. Sorry if you didn't know. And the couple pays a brutal price to get to that point.

The male of the type mentioned in my opening line, is, of course, a guy like me, that kind of man who has grown up more in the world of books and ideas, the world of intellectual problem-solving instead of brute force. In high school, I played sports with a moderate amount of success, fit in easily, but ended up hanging out more with the yearbook staff than the basketball team.

I wasn't bullied or intimidated by the jocks; I just didn't know very much about their world. And that's what makes the movie so uncomfortable to watch. The amped-up violence is a Hollywood convention, but the social confusion is not.

But it isn't just the rules of high school that the protagonist (a mathematician in the original, a writer in the update) doesn't understand, he flat out doesn't grasp "how things are done around here," meaning his wife's hometown. And anyone who has ever returned with a girlfriend, boyfriend, or spouse to his or her hometown or city knows some version of what this is like. Joining someone in his or her childhood home means trying to understand a "code," with a confusing, inconsistent set of rules, a point Straw Dogs drives home in spades.

In the recent movie, that means that he undervalues the importance of relgion and football (he walks out on a service that essentially is a blessing of the high school football team), the connection between drinking and violence, the history of lifelong relationships. The last one, in particular, is difficult for him to factor. He knows his wife dated the leader of the work crew repairing his roof, but underestimates the man's continuing obsession with her. And he clearly misses the history of the conflicts created by a mentally-limited Benjy/Lenny type character whose combination of interest in pretty girls and unawareness of his own physical strength foreshadows doom.

But, most importantly, the protagonist doesn't know how to handle an easily-physical, imposing group of men. And his wife expects him to. Yes, he is smarter than them, he is wealthier than them, and he "got the girl," but he is also naive. It is hard to watch as they mock-respect him and take advantage of his easy-going acceptance and generosity. It is hard to watch them walk into his house from working on the barn to grab beers out of his refrigerator, an action that doesn't concern his wife at all, since everybody shares everything in town and they don't even bother to lock their doors. Even though that lack of boundaries leads to trouble. It is agonizing to see him try to hold them to a work schedule,to courtesy, to respect for their clients. It is brutal to watch them lure him to join a hunting trip while their leader goes back to his house to visit his wife.

His wife sometimes helps him to navigate this confusing social environment, except when it comes to these man issues, when she expects him to know what stand to take against this group of bullies whom she is ostensibily friends with, putting him in a strange position of having to walk out to the barn to reach accomodation with them and then having to walk back in to her to see if he measures up to her expectations. Which he doesn't.

It is that situation that everyone who has ever been in a relationship has been in. Through either an overt comment or silence, I feel pressure to "do something." Do I act or do I hold back? Is this any of my business or is this issue beyond my comprehension or responsibility? And, worst of all, if I decide to take a stand, what stand do I take? Do I accuse someone of something that I know is true but can't prove? Is discretion truly the better part of valor? Do I really gain respect by turning the other cheek? Am I supposed to fight?

When we don't know how we're supposed to act, we rarely guess right, tending instead to hesitate or to overreact badly.

And so, despite the ominous social tensions in Straw Dogs, the accumulating choices which are defining the marriage are the center of the movie. Though the wife in the movie defends her husband's manhood, her disillusionment in him proceeds unabated with each social failure. In fact, she has lost such confidence in him that she withholds a crucial piece of information from him for the last 30 minutes of the film. Whether that is because she thinks he won't act or thinks that he will is unclear, but reveals the destruction of trust either way. And when she declares that she wants to leave, he reads the situation as indicative of his failure and makes the line-in-the-sand decision to stay.

Even though Straw Dogs would seem to glory in the protagonist's physical victory, his stand against the violent, his protection of his castle, it also wisely ends abruptly, leaving the the viewer to survey the damage mentally, acutely conscious of how little there is to celebrate. As someone who can empathize with his incessant confusion, that is very difficult to watch.

NOTE: My focus on the protagonist is in no way intended to minimize what happens to the woman in this movie.  I would love to see a companion piece or a feminist essay written on Straw Dogs.


troutking said...

Dustin Hoffman rules!

Billy said...

This might not quite be what you were hoping for, but it's a step in the right direction:

The original is truly haunting. A pitch dark exploration of the violent and collision-fetish nature of men.