Dear Straw Dogs (2011),
Subtlety. Subtlety is a weird, thing isn’t it? The very act of intimating something rather than speaking it allowed enables a whole interior world of thought and meaning. Silence and allusion can create a moral or a statement that transcends the actions that exist around it. Many of the best movies are considered great not because of what they say, but because of what they fail to say and leave to interpretation. Moral ambiguity and intellectual uncertainty allow for depths and mazes of subtext that add more meaning and importance to a movie than any amount of open, bald-faced, hackneyed exposition could ever hope to accomplish.
Straw Dogs knew what subtly and ambiguity could accomplish. No, not you. Your fore-bearer, your namesake – Peckinpah’s original meditation on manliness and the place of intellect and strength in the modern world (back when the 1970s were modern). That movie had overt moments of obvious humiliation for its hero, David, an American mathematician un-moored from his comfort zone in the rough-hewn childhood town of his British wife; but those moments were tempered by an even deeper, silent, more menacing and cerebral torment. That film was like a loud, boisterous stranger at a bar, who makes you uncomfortable in two ways. One, by getting too close, being too loud, and using language that is too crass. The other way, though, is much worse; he says things that have a layer of menace, his eyes hold a gleam that belies ferocity greater than you would assume he was capable of, and his hand never loosens its ‘friendly’ grip on your shoulder.
You, though, are like a swaggering, rowdy, arrogant bruiser who throws threats and insults without the slightest concept of how to make them stick or even how to make them sound convincing. Your strokes are broader, which could work, but you lack the soul or the conviction of your power to really deliver on anything you promise. You waste so much time talking, and explaining, and enumerating that all sense of meaning or depth is squandered.
The thing is, your failure isn’t just that you explain your supposed subtext too thoroughly; the problem is that you don’t have a subtext to explain, and yet you won’t shut up about it. First, you change your land of danger from an isolated British township to the Deep South, allowing for you to make an easier, lazier distinction between the intellectual husband – now a Hollywood screenwriter – and his wife’s redneck kin. This cheapens and infantilizes the central conflict of your source film – that of modern intellectualism and societal order versus the more innate, primal drive toward masculine action and force. Now you’re just a tale of a small, wimpy guy versus some beer drinking, deer hunting good ol’ boys.
In fact, the entirety of your narrative is made much smaller, much more personal, which could have been good in a movie that poses itself as a character study or a personal journey. You, however, make a point of saying numerous times that you are about something more. How do you do this? In your typical, histrionic manner, of course. First of all, David, the husband/screenwriter, is writing a movie about Stalingrad. Ok, clever little nod toward a siege where a small, weaker force defeated a greater force. Sort of laying it on thick, but nothing compared to the later scene where he outright explains that this movie he is writing will say big things about the human condition and the will to survive. It’s like you want us to draw a parallel, but don’t trust us or yourself enough to just let it exist without needing to fill in all the blanks.
Worst of all, though, is that you seem to be willfully and angrily opposed to the darker, more complicated elements of your original form. The unseemly, lustful transgressions of David’s wife in the original are robbed of all of their ambiguity in you, and in fact you go out of your way to deny and openly repel her greatest shocking transgression from the original. This isn’t even given a new thematic twist or used in any interesting way. You don’t do this as a means of distancing or distinguishing yourself from the original, just as a means of softening what should be a visceral punch.
It is so frustrating an infuriating to see you cloth yourself in the messages, ideas, and actions of your predecessor while somehow going out of your way to deny any of the moral gray area and that made it interesting. You seem to think that just because you walk the same path you can tweak specific elements and retain the patina of importance that the original had. What you fail to realize, though, is that that film succeeded because of all of the uncertainty and ambiguity you so ruthlessly slaughter. That film asked questions. You make ham-fisted statements.
Had you not used the story and title of a much better film as a launching off point, you would have been mediocre, forgettable, but not as outright offensively misguided as you appear to be. As it stands you are a competently directed, decently acted rape of much better and more thoughtful handled intellectual territory.
Tell it to the wind,
Brian J. Roan