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Does STRAW DOGS (2011) harm Mississippi’s reputation?

Posted on December 23rd, 2011
Posted on December 23rd, 2011

by Coop Cooper

Based on the original 1971 classic, this version of “Straw Dogs” moves the locale from rural England to rural Mississippi. David (James Marsden) and Amy Sumner (Kate Bosworth) return from Hollywood to Amy’s home town to fix up her deceased father’s hurricane-damaged home and so David can get some quiet time to work on his next screenplay. They soon run into Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard) and his contracting crew hired to fix up the Sumner barn. Charlie, an ex beau of Amy’s, gives David a hard time and leers at Amy along with his cronies. An escalating series of circumstances results in these mean-spirited locals pushing too far. They lay siege to the house, giving David and Amy no choice but to fight for their lives.

The opening montage shows poachers shooting a deer, then quick images of trailer parks, Confederate flags, rural decay, barking dogs, misogynistic bar patrons harassing waitresses… Basically a representation of what people stereotypically fear about Mississippi and the South in general. While it serves a purpose, it’s a gratuitous way to inform the audience that the protagonists are venturing into hostile territory.

There’s a malice in the subtext of each interaction between David and the locals. They speak to him politely enough (at first) but each interaction ends with an uncomfortable, passive-aggressive remark that hints at something menacing and violent underneath. It’s as if someone put something in the drinking water to make them all alpha males, itching to put someone in the doghouse. Even the town’s ex-football coach (James Woods) can’t make it through a scene without threatening someone or flying into a drunken rage.

As a fish-out-of-water, David irritates the locals. He states his liberal opinions when prodded by the townsfolk then accidentally insults them when he tries to explain his point of view. He’s also afraid of confrontation making him an easy target for the local bullies. Having grown up in this town, his wife seems both ashamed by the rougher aspects of her culture, and offended when David insults it. When he acts callously towards her attempts to entice him, what she does next sets off the violent escalation.

Race plays a very small part in this story. Director Rob Lurie was at least smart enough to include a comfortably integrated society and an honorable African American Sheriff keeping the peace. Only in one decisive moment does the film lapse into racism territory in a senseless and horrifying act. Lurie obviously decided to play that card for exploitative purposes sense it had nothing to do with the overarching plot.

If it weren’t for blatant stereotyping and a few missteps, I could honestly say I would have enjoyed this remake. The action was tense, the plot unfolded organically, the acting was above par (they got the accents right) and the final siege was exceptionally brutal. I believe it did the remake justice and actually improved on some aspects that always nagged at me. Considering this was a pure exploitation film with no other redeeming value other than to entertain, I have to give credit where credit is due.

Unfortunately, other viewers around the world won’t be viewing “Straw Dogs” from my perspective and the negative reputation of the state will persist. The film was shot in Louisiana instead of Mississippi (probably for tax incentive reasons), giving Mississippi all of the bile and very little of the benefit. Quentin Tarantino is making the same plans for his next big-budget exploitation film “Django Unchained” except I have good word he is at least employing some Mississippi actors and filmmakers. That film isn’t likely to show Mississippi in a good light either but I have a feeling it will be exceptionally well done, if not enjoyable. Despite this, I still hold out some hope that the sweeping success of “The Help” and its upcoming award season wins will encourage more positive films to come shoot in-state.

The “Straw Dogs” remake is now available on DVD.

Rating: 2 ½ out of 5 stars

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