Rod Lurie on New Straw Dogs : A Different Take on Rape

When I attended an early screening of Rod Lurie's remake of Sam Peckinpah's controversial thriller from 1971, Straw Dogs, last week, I was most curious to see how the director handled the infamous rape scene.

Yes, the original's ultra-violence (to borrow a phrase from another controversial film of that year) sparked its own arguments -- among critics and audiences -- and seems to be what many now remember it for. But the violence debate had been going on for years, partly sparked by Peckinpah's earlier Wild Bunch. The rape scene, with the film's release coming at a high tide for the feminist movement, was what really sparked anger and dismay.

So how would Lurie handle it today? Yes, he is known for films with strong female characters, from The Contender to Nothing But the Truth -- and then there was his TV series with Geena Davis as the first female president. But one had to wonder why, from among countless possible films to re-shoot, Lurie (of all people) would pick this one.

To briefly recap: Straw Dogs tells the story of a mild-mannered academic (Dustin Hoffman in the original) married to a hot younger wife (Susan George) who end up in a home out in the English countryside that badly needs repairs. In Peckinpah's version, George flirts with the local handymen, seemingly asking for trouble, then turns on Hoffman for not defending her honor when they start to leer. They trick him into going hunting -- to prove his manhood -- and while he's gone first one, then a buddy, rapes her. The second attack is barbaric but during the first assault we see a somewhat ambivalent George, who sheds a tear but in the end also acts rather tenderly toward the rapist.

Then her husband returns and all hell breaks loose.

Naturally, women of all types (not just feminists), and some men, raised angry alarms about the rape scene, charging that it debased women and rationalized rape. Many critics hailed or at least defended the film for its allegedly "complicated" treatment of rape, which I could never understand, and it has mystified me ever since why some writers have called the film a classic. Pauline Kael called it "the first American film that is a fascist work of art."

So: What would Lurie (as both writer and director) do with it? And why remake it at all?

Well, he spilled the beans for a wide audience this past weekend on (where else?) Twitter, observing, "I think you will see that one of the reasons for remaking was to turn it into a feminist film." But he had already said much the same thing in answering a question I posed at that screening.

In the remake, the husband (James Marsden) is turned into a screenwriter and the wife (Kate Bosworth) an actress. They have moved, if briefly, to her childhood home in the rural Deep South, after the death of her father. The local high school football coach is a profane, drunken, bully (James Woods, naturally), but the real danger is posed by Kate's hunky ex-boyfriend (Alexander Skardsgard), hired by the couple to fix the roof on their barn.

The plot of the new Straw Dogs closely follows the original, and ends in another epic, bloody finale, as the previously passive Marsden turns lethal (as before, using an animal trap as the coup de grâce). But the handling of the rape, and what surrounds it, is indeed quite different.

In Lurie's version, Bosworth acts more firmly to keep her attacker out of the house with her husband gone. As the rape commences there's a moment when ambivalence seems to show on her face, but it is fleeting, and she resists about as strongly as she could. Then she is brutally attacked by the second man, and quite shattered afterward. No one at the screening I attended (a broad-based "film club") even asked about the rape scene in the Q&A with Lurie, before I did at the very end. One viewer seemed more concerned about alleged stereotyping of rural Southern males. "Ambivalence" did not seem to be an issue.

Bosworth even gets to fire a fateful rifle shot (see upper left).

When I asked the quick-on-his-feet Lurie about the rape scene, he looked down at the floor for about six seconds, then said this was the most important question of the night. He said that while he admired much in the original Straw Dogs, he was appalled by Peckinpah's handling of the rape scene. He said no woman would act so ambivalent and even "cuddle" with her attacker afterward. From the start, he vowed to do it differently.

Even so, in sounding out various actresses about the part of the wife, one after another raised objections to the scene in the original. Bosworth took the part after Lurie promised the scene would be portrayed quite differently. Indeed, he would not even think of putting her through the "grueling" experience that Susan George survived.

Lurie told the audience that he had a 19-year-old daughter so he would not think of showing that scene in any other way. So, for Lurie, it was Sam I Am (Not).

And that different "spin," as he called it, was part of the reason for remaking the film. Another was that Lurie strenuously disagreed with Peckinpah's claim that every man was "wired" for violence and poised to ignite. Rather, in his view, we are "conditioned" (like the attackers in the film) or ready to act violently only to defend home and family. What screenplay is the husband in the film working on? Something to do with the siege of Stalingrad.

All that said, some viewers may still feel that Lurie portrays the wife, in a couple of scenes, as acting provocatively. Certainly this was the view of at least a couple of people at the screening. For example, the husband takes her to task for jogging without a bra and in a tank top within sight of the roofers. She replies that, gosh, they are in the middle of nowhere and it's scorching hot. Lurie explains that the wife makes "mistakes" in the film -- having idealized her hometown as a place where everyone is friendly and you don't even have to lock your doors -- but they are not meant to provoke the men, and in any case rape is completely unacceptable. The husband, with his Ivy League elitism, had offended the locals all along.

Still, it will be interesting to see what reviewers and audiences make of the new Straw Dogs -- and Lurie's description of it as a feminist film. At the screening Lurie said he expected some critics, despite all of the graphic violence in the film, to accuse him of "wimping out" -- for rejecting Peckinpah's depiction of a "complicated" rape. Indeed, some of the early reviews have hinted at this, with the Variety reviewer complaining that the new film lacks Peckinpah's "provocations" and is too "palatable."

Greg Mitchell's latest book, his twelfth, is Atomic Cover-Up: Two U.S. Soldiers, Hiroshima & Nagasaki, and The Greatest Movie Never Made.