Quite a long time ago I reached a point where I decided I wouldn’t watch any more films with sexual violence, I simply couldn’t stomach the gratuitous use of rape scenes and the film-makers’ indifference toward cruelty. There were a few exceptions along the way but they basically had to be absolute knock-out films for me to bother overlooking my no-rape-scenes policy. And then recently, I sat down to knowingly watch the very average 2011 re-make of Straw Dogs and I ended up spending quite a bit of time thinking about the rape scene and I even went and watched the 1971 version of Straw Dogs in order to make sense of that rape scene. Here are my thinky thoughts on the atrocious use of a rape scene in yet another film (Pauline Kael, I salute you) and how it’s being updated for a modern audience and also, how I manage to quite like one version of Straw Dogs.
Straw Dogs, a film by director Sam Peckinpah was supposed to be about the savage, ancient violence lurking beneath a modern, civilised society. In the 1970’s that was a concept that still had the power to shock people. The original film bases its tension around a culture clash – an American abroad, living in a tiny, dreary, English village with his English wife – the new version, by Rod Lurie, uses the same class warfare but places it all in the United States of America with a North versus South thing going on. Straw Dogs is essentially about a couple (David and Amy) seeking change from their stressful city life (or an escape from conscription into the Vietnam War as in the 1971 version), and so they move to Amy’s birthplace, where the guy can work in quiet solitude on something very intellectual and very important while his wife gets a little bored and lonely. The house they move to requires work, and ‘work’ is an important matter in this film because it’s the core of a man’s identity, but of course it is not ‘intellectual work’ the house requires, rather it’s ‘manly labouring type’ work. This means they need to hire some very manly labouring type men to fix their house. Enter manly Charlie and his manly crew. In both versions the class war in Straw Dogs is straight up. The sex war, not so much.
This is what you need to know about the 1971 version of David, he is played by Dustin Hoffman. He’s brilliant to watch.
This what you need to know about the 2011 version of David, played by James Marsden, he wears pink shirts (ie. metrosexual!), is obnoxious, snobbish, over-paid and apparently cultured (he uses chess pieces on his wife in foreplay: well, la di dah). He also has a lovely car, but significantly, doesn’t know how to change its tyres and is more interested in it as a status symbol than as a classic automobile (watch for the ‘hood ornament’ moment). In other words, this man is struggling to be a man. He is no Dustin Hoffman either.
In fact, everything about Straw Dogs is about masculinity and the fear of being emasculated, but more on that later.
This is what you need to know about Charlie. In the 1971 version he is played by Del Henney and he (second from the left) and his crew look like this.
Kind of a brutish sexuality there but still, more brute than out-right hot.
Here is Charlie in 2011.
He is fucking gorgeous. Problematic. Alexander Skarsgård is too hot to be a rapist and Straw Dogs concerns manly brutish men being rapists, it’s part of their potent masculinity and it’s how they lead the turf war against those white-collar men who can’t figure out how to be real men. (Get all the high-paid jobs, take ‘em all, take everything, but do you look like this when you take your shirt off?) It is incredibly wrong thinking to suggest that rapists can’t be good-looking, as if rape was about unmet sexual needs rather than the cruel and deliberate exploitation of power, but then the 2011 version of Straw Dogs goes out of its way to make Charlie irresistible and in doing so the film tries its little heart out to make the rape really blurry. Actually, that’s the bit that made me seek out the older version of Straw Dogs for comparison, was it a rape, was it supposed to be blurry, was Charlie actually intended to be kinda sexy during that scene?
The real battleground for these two men – David and Charlie – is their masculinity. Both men are being sexually humiliated by David’s wife, Amy. David, because he won’t confront the manly men over their behaviour, which becomes increasingly threatening, allowing him to be seen as a coward by his wife, and Charlie, because he doesn’t have the money and status to pull a chick like Amy, and there she is, right in front of him, existing (ie. how provocative of her). This theme is played hard with Charlie and Amy also being ex-lovers from their youth. Charlie is mortified to be watching his manly crew ogling his ex-girlfriend, the one he let get away, the one he isn’t ‘big’ enough to have anymore. Both men cast as Charlie in Straw Dogs are physically imposing, that’s significant because the title of the film is derived from this very aspect. Physical stature was once important, back in highschool, but also back in time when life was more labour-intensive, it was valued enough to get them the girl, where as now with the new world order Charlie is in the subservient position of working for David; the power of being physically superior has diminished. Or has it?
In both versions of the film David is a patronising git to his intellectually inferior wife but at least in the 1970’s version the marital politics feels pretty truthful to the time, and Hoffman has a little something going on that makes him momentarily attractive to you, he and Susan George also manage some charming chemistry together that Marsden and Kate Bosworth never do. In the 2011 version Straw Dogs has Charlie being quite chivalrous – intervening where bullying is happening, calling men ‘sir’ and dreamily admiring a pregnant friend’s belly – a bit of Southern Gentleman mixed in with his redneck. The kind of menacing charm that blends chivalry right into misogyny. Because, the rape scene.
Here’s all the super dangerous stuff in the Charlie-Amy rape scene.
Firstly, Amy is supposed to be seen as asking for it, she doesn’t, after all, always wear a bra, as noted by her blaming/shaming husband, and we all know rapists can’t resist jiggling. Plus, she gets a little pissy with the manly brutes for ogling her at one point and flashes her breasts at them in a little ‘fuck you’ gesture. Oh no, you know how rapists feel about feisty women. (As an aside, another key plot development in the film involves an underage girl ‘seducing’ an older man with diminished mental capacities, she’s asking for it too, of course).
Now, here comes the serious ‘rape mythology’ crap. Part-way through the rape scene Amy apparently starts to enjoy the experience. In fact, in the 1971 version, Charlie and Amy are quite tender together by the end of that ‘thing’. I hate this notion so much that I considered whether or not to even call this a rape scene. I mean, if you and your partner get off on it and it makes you feel so happy together then it’s rough consensual sex, not rape. But then, even by a misogynist’s definition, surely this scene constitutes rape – because in both film versions Amy says no multiple times and in multiple ways and Charlie continues, and in both versions Charlie uses physical force and intimidation. In the 1971 version of Straw Dogs the rape is initially seriously violent, the 2011 version tones the violence down but accommodates for that by allowing Amy to look more distressed by the rape than 1971 Amy does. Problem is, though, both versions really eroticise the rape scene.
Next ‘rape mythology’ bit of crap. Is Charlie attractively assertive and bad at reading women’s emotions or is he predatory? Both versions of Straw Dogs film the scene in such a way as to suggest that the rape is almost an accidental moment of masculine brutality. Symbolically, the rape by Charlie happens simultaneously when David is out trying his hand at hunting, where through dumb luck he actually manages to shoot and kill an animal. In fact, in Straw Dogs 2011 Charlie appears hurt that Amy is behaving so much like someone whose just been raped, he’s misunderstood you see, he thought she wanted him, and in both versions David is kinda sad about killing the animal. Oops. These things happen when men are being manly, things can get hurt or killed or scarred for life. Accidentally, naturally.
And this brings me to the thing about Straw Dogs that really troubles me. It’s not Amy whose sexualised so much in the rape scene as it is Charlie. Skarsgård, particularly, is directed to play Charlie in a manner very close to something like ‘romantic lead’. Men and women, both, in the audience are left with no doubt that naked Charlie is supposed to be way hotter than naked David – the 1971 version rather bluntly flashes topless images of Charlie and David against one other. Straw Dogs features multiple close-ups of Charlie’s naked torso, and in the 2011 version, shot for shot they’re like something out of a passionate love story. I think this was a deliberate act to make female audience members complicit in the ‘rape mythology’ of the storyline. Of course Amy really wants Charlie, you do, too. You want a rapist.
And supposedly, here lies the inner struggle for men – if you’re not manly women won’t be attracted to you, but if you are manly, women will want to hate you for it. In case you have any doubt that the rape scene is all about the men in this film and what it means for them and their journey, rather than anything about the victim’s point of view or journey, the scene culminates in Charlie punishing Amy in the worst possible way – the infamous ‘double rape’ scene – enter Charlie’s manly, rapist mate. Charlie punishes Amy for the revulsion he feels towards himself for what he’s done, which depending on the film version is either expressed as a sense of horror and shame or as a sense of being too soft and vulnerable. Don’t worry, this is ‘rape mythology’ bullshit, so Charlie gets to redeem himself right at the end of the film by putting his life on the line to save Amy. Although, if you watch the film you’ll note that the whole moralising climactic bit of the story happens when men are trying to protect a home and another man from men – it’s really about property rights and due process. And David finally claims his masculinity and status as hero when he can be as violent and blood-thirsty as the brutish men.
In the end, Straw Dogs, like those other manly films of the 1970’s tells you little about women but quite a lot about men. I have to admit that I retain a bit of a soft spot for these 70s films, partly because they feature these amazing actors in their prime, like Dustin Hoffman (who said he wanted to do Straw Dogs because he was “interested in [the] repressed violence in liberals”), and partly, because they’re all so preoccupied with fears about masculinity (it was a time of serious social change, after all), and partly, because they didn’t bother to make any kind of gesture towards feminism so you get to see these horrid little thoughts in all their misogynist glory – they really wear their MRA spirit on their sleeves, there’s nothing that deceptive or manipulative about them.
Ok then, two sorta film reviews in one week, I promise never to do that again here.
P.S. This was a very long and tiring post to write (and probably also to read, congratulations you made it to the end). At times I thought why bother, is anyone even watching the Straw Dogs remake, but then, in researching my post I started reading what others said about it on the Internet and you should see the kind of bullshit that is still being written out there about this story, really, my god you should read it, and I just wanted to say I see the rape scene differently to you guys, very differently.