Audiences lining up at the theater this weekend for ‘Straw Dogs’ (a remake of the 1971 Dustin Hoffman film) are probably in the mood for a fun, edge-of-your-seat thriller. That’s what the trailers and commercials and posters tell you to expect: the character of L.A. screenwriter David Sumner (James Marsden) retreats to the Deep South with his beautiful blond wife (Kate Bosworth), only to be confronted by intimidating, corn-fed locals.
As they challenge his livelihood and threaten his wife, we’ll see David Sumner rise to action and defend his home, utilizing an array of home appliances as weapons — until he finally squares off against the leader of those corn-fed locals, played by the heartthrob, young acting sensation Alexander Skarsgard. For the many female fans of the Swedish-born hunk, this will be their first chance to see Skarsgard on the big screen in a high-profile, big-budget Hollywood movie — in a villainous role that allows him to smoulder with sensual charisma.
There’s just one thing the trailers for ‘Straw Dogs’ aren’t telling you about this movie: Alexander Skarsgard’s character is a violent rapist.
First, let’s take a look at the trailer.
This remake’s marketing plays it up as a home invasion thriller — which it is on the surface. But what sets the story of ‘Straw Dogs’ apart from ‘Trespass’ or ‘Lakeview Terrace’ or ‘The Strangers’ is a cerebral dissection of alpha male aggression and a human being’s innate trigger for violence. Perhaps original director Sam Peckinpah was approaching that theme with a Grand Guginol style of prodding, but he never had the intention to deliver a popcorn thriller that young audiences could watch on a Saturday night for a jolt of adrenaline, and then return to their lives without any deeper reflection on what they just watched.
The decision to include the crime of rape in the 1971 version has provoked a long argument that continues among critics, scholars & cinephiles. Roger Ebert opined that the “most offensive thing about the movie is its hypocrisy; it is totally committed to the pornography of violence, but lays on the moral outrage with a shovel”; meanwhile Pauline Kael praised the film, though noting that it was “the first American film that is a fascist work of art.”
It is a messy, ambiguous moment in a confrontational piece of nihilistic storytelling; you can debates its merits all you want, but one thing was for sure — the studio didn’t market Del Henney’s rapist character with his shirt off.
How the new film handles the controversial scene is largely an afterthought to this discussion; this is all about how Screen Gems sold you into buying a ticket.
The honest fact is that many people don’t even know this movie is a remake, and won’t be bothered to research a film that is forty years old. Going only by the commercials that were placed in their lap, the movie appears to be a tense, violent thriller that titillates fans of Bosworth and Skarsgard’s good looks — and that’s where it ends. What they will actually be getting is a movie filled with sexual aggression and challenging outdated views on masculine entitlement. Did Screen Gems keep this detail secret for the sake of a “shock spoiler”? I hope not, because that means we have gotten to the point that rape is a cheap scare.
My instincts tell me that they downplayed this information because it is bad for business. If Screen Gems marketed the movie honestly and conveyed to audiences that ‘Straw Dogs’ would be filled with dark, complicated depictions of humanity, then a large portion of the mainstream public with disposable cash wouldn’t show up. This is a movie for ‘True Blood’ fans; no one needs to draw attention to the fact that Eric Northman holds a woman down and sexually violates her because he believes he is entitled to it.
If you get offended and shocked that the movie was not what were you expecting — who cares? They already got your money.
Were you aware of ‘Straw Dogs’ subject matter? Does it affect your desire to see the film?