Monday, September 19, 2011

Straw Dogs

Yesterday, after a great day of football, I went to go see Straw Dogs, a film I had intended on seeing for a few weeks now.  Knowing what I know now though, I kind of wished I saved the ten dollars and waited for it’s availability on Redbox.

The story is, to some degree, what the trailers are billing it as, which is the tale of a man who is pushed to the brink and must act out of character to protect his world.  That said, I don’t think enough was done to push this film beyond other survivor films.  I guess, despite the violence on display, I was expecting a much more brutal retribution and self-defense portrayed in the film.

Straw Dogs takes the fish out of water storyline and mixes in healthy doses of adapt or die mentality to flesh out the final product. Overall, based on substance, acting and characterization, I would have to give the film, if I were grading it, a C.  Here are some random observations:

The title and the story behind it, which tells of an ancient idealism that is then applied to football heroes in small towns, who, once they outlive the life of their past glories, are destined to become nothings. 

The main character is depicted as a screenwriter and he does discuss some of his research, regarding his current project, a documentary on Stalingrad.  These were neat to hear and were also fitting reminders of what would come later in the film.

The transformation of the main character was done very well.  He’s a man who starts off, perhaps a bit on the effeminate side, maybe a little bit stuck up, but on the whole a relatively likable, well-educated and generous man. 

In his interactions with the local folk, you can clearly see his hesitation, almost to a level of fear and loathing.  This uneasiness is on display the entire film, but for the sake of his wife he’s trying to make a concerted effort, to not only fit in, but also show her that he’ll always be there for her.  He quotes, “When in Rome,” as a badge, depicting his ability to adapt to any circumstance.  This is all very interesting, as, on the one hand, he certainly adapts beyond anyone’s expectations, but he’s never really there for his wife, emotionally, as seen early in the film, and then again physically, as seen during her pivotal scene later on.  In fact she learns not to believe in her husband, to the degree that she refrains from telling him about the incident, believing he’d either skew meaning, try to rationalize the situation, be entirely incapable or unwilling to do anything about it. 

The end of his transformation, when he becomes that which he is fighting, is really interesting to watch unfold, as the meek and mild traveller in no fully in “Rome” and has acted in a like manner. 

As he stares into the inferno consuming, what just hours before was, his barn, he watches the flames build well into the sky.   All the while his home and everything he’s come to know has been demolished. 

While staring we can see an almost trancelike pleasure, taking place within his being.  We see his wife, disheveled and worn-out, staring at her blood-soaked husband, almost emanating a sense of peace.  She’s in shock, incapable of believing that this all just happened, what she’s seen, what she watched him do.  In her there we get sense that a sentiment of fear, if not terror has in some way taken her over, striking to her very core and altering all she knew.

The way the film ends we are left wondering what this man’s next move will be.  Will he revert back to the person he previously was?  Or will these events ever-change who he is?  Perhaps he’ll realize that he enjoyed this violent side, one he didn’t know he had a bit too much. And just maybe, we, the audience, begin to believe that his transformation is not complete yet.  One is left to wonder.

From the point of a moviegoer, most of what I just got through discussing would be considered the positives.  As far as negatives go, I’ll first say I thought the acting could have been much better.  At more than one time I thought the acting to be comparable to what you’d expect on cable and not the quality we’ve come to expect from what you’d find on the big screen.

Another thing I didn’t care for was the many incidents of one-dimensional characterization.  Outside the two main characters, and an argument can be made against Kate Bosworth’s character as well, those created for the local cast is poorly drawn at best.  They are caricatures that, while existing for a singular purpose, are lacking depth, and thus their connection to reality.  I’ve visited a number of towns like the one depicted in Straw Dogs.  I’ve had numerous experiences with individuals like those depicted here, and while some of them certainly possessed what most would describe as having detestable qualities, there were, in each instance, redeeming qualities that couldn’t be overlooked.  In this town, outside of the Sheriff, almost all the characters were drawn the same.  In Straw Dogs, the dogs are really made of straw, easily flammable and lacking any substance other than the ability to bark and bite.

One last negative I’d like to briefly mention deals with the subplot.  The subplot of Straw Dogs deals with a character named Jeremy, he’s a caricature in his own right, who is challenged mentally. Maybe it’s just me, but Pearl Jam’s classic hit comes to mind pretty vividly about now.  Jeremy doesn’t speak right, he thinks, we are told, impulsively and can’t rationalize between right and wrong.  A problem ensues and this subplot is never really resolved.  I know the writers would claim it was, and I can even see how they’d claim it was, but I’m just not buying it. 

For me this subplot was included for two purposes, the first is an attempt to illustrate further the way this town treats outsiders, or those who don’t quite act like they do.  The locals see Jeremy as mentally slow yet physically a threat, while David is seen as intellectually threatening yet physically incompetent.  So the contrast/comparative aspect is obviously something the writers were trying to play with, yet for me anyhow, it was needless and just didn’t do anything special to warrant its place in the film. 

The second reason for the subplot appears birthed in laziness.  They use Jeremy as a sort of fuse.  As his plot climaxes, an intersection between his story and David’s occurs as David accidentally hits Jeremy with his car.  David and his wife take Jeremy back to their home to mend his wounds and wait for medical personnel.  Meanwhile a witch-hunt brews, as the Coach gathers up the Straw Dogs to hunt Jeremy down, with the obvious intention to kill him.  To me, this was just an easy way to get the enraged mob over to David’s house in order to incite the films final scene.  The connection is sloppy and contrived and it’s really disappointing because there was easily enough tension built up between Charlie and his crew and David and his wife where the final scene could have come about in a much more organic manner, one that would have felt more likely and therefore enhancing the product.  But it wasn’t done this way, instead we get what we get, a final scene that is easily the best part of the film.  The writers obviously feel that with such a strong ending most viewers will gladly overlook the manner it all came to be.  I can’t overlook it, and to be quite frank it, along with the other issues I have mentioned damaged the experience as a whole.

In conclusion though, I’d like to say the film is worth watching.  You will find things of interest, and perhaps you won’t be as picky as I’ve been, in which case you’ll probably enjoy it more than I did.  However, my recommendation is two-fold, first don’t let any children see the film, as there are many instances of graphically violent scenes, including rape and animal torture.  And secondly increase your enjoyment factor by saving a few dollars and wait until it reaches DVD.

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