Straw Dogs Movie Review

In the remake of the 1971 movie of the same name and adaptation the book The Siege of Trencher’s Farm by Gordon M. Williams; a Hollywood writer and good ole southern boys mix like ammonia and chlorine in Straw Dogs. Straw Dogs is a heart pounding, jaw clenching, hand trembling, visceral, modern expression of classic horror.

After the death of her father, actress Amy Sumner (Kate Bosworth) and her screenwriter husband David (James Marsden) return to her childhood home in the deep south. They hire Amy’s childhood boyfriend Charlie (Alexander Skarsgård) and his crew Chris (Billy Lush), Norman (Rhys Coiro), and Bic (Drew Powell) to fix up the barn damaged in a hurricane. Tensions simmer until they are finally heated to a roaring boil and there is a war of wills.

From the first frames to the last shots, Straw Dogs uses non-dialogue ques to express emotions, convey mood, and move along plots. American cinema relies strongly on script and dialogue to move plot and convey feeling. Straw Dogs does the opposite. The filmmakers use dialogue to pour incendiary emotions on the audience and uses everything they have to set the audience on fire.

The actors had a tremendous script to work from in order to set us ablaze. Every scene, every piece of dialogue is carefully cultivated to give the audience just enough information to draw their own conclusions. They give every person the room to see things from their view, not to demand a view of them. Writers David Zelag Goodman and Sam Peckinpah with writer-director Rod Laurie answer enough questions to make the characters more curious. Until the end they leave things vague enough that our imagination has room to run. What is not said is as important as what is said. The writers are the gasoline of the film.

The cast of Straw Dogs is tasked with not only saying their lines with emotion but with expressing emotions as if they were lines. Even harder, the exclusively expressive moments are as important or more important than the spoken. The audience relies on the delivery of their emotions to see what is coming or to understand what has happened. The entire cast rises to the challenge, each a flint and steel; a source of ignition.

Alexander Skarsgård digs Charlie an emotional pool so deep, it is easy to drown, and so dark that no one wants to get in. James Marsden’s gives David a bamboo like quality; slight but stronger and more resilient than it appears. Billy Lush, Rhys Coiro, and Drew Powell imparted their characters with enough just enough of a benign quality that the hairs on the back of my neck did not jump like terrified lemmings. James Woods, who pays the retired football coach, is a whirling dervish of alcoholic rage; spitting hot embers all over the audience.

The cinematography in Straw Dogs is as essential to the temper of the film as the writing and acting. The first shot tells the audience that the filmmakers are not just going to show us the acting on film, they are going to use the camera to help tell the story. There is cunning use of light and shadow. The use of fore, middle, and background give the film a sense of depth. Many of the scenes use framing to convey a sense of space, geography, or just beauty. The use of mirrors, reflection, and peripheral vision lead to the most dramatic audience reaction to a moment in a movie I have ever heard. If I told you what was coming, when it occurred in the movie (which I will not do), the emotional response would be exactly the same because it is involuntary and frightening.

I thank director Rod Laurie for marrying such acting, visuals, and writing so beautifully, or frighteningly, that I was able to exercise so many emotions at once. Having a vision so clear and defined that it be expressed with an unwavering quality throughout every aspect of the film is essential to creating emotional arson in Straw Dogs.

I noticed about half way through Straw Dogs that the hair on my arms was standing straight up and about two thirds of the way through, I was shaking. I was scared. Straw Dogs is one of the most terrifying movies I have ever seen. Not because of the gore, or because of killings but because everything feels so real. Nothing is exaggerated, there is no hyperbole. No one is super human, or sub human.

I suspect it frightening for women differently than it is for men. It lays in front of the audience, in unadulterated view, uncensored, in the most gut punching possible way, what is the most primal human fears; disturbing and dreaded situations for both men and women. It cuts deeply to the differences between men and women. Even now, thinking about the movie is making my jaw clench and is making it hard to type because my arms are tensing up.

When the credits run, all the necessary plot points are there (beginning, character development, climax, end) but there is no shortage of things to discuss outside the theater. I felt like I witnessed an event, not read the story of the event, so there are gaps in what we know, and room for personal interpretations. The hour of conversation after leaving the theater was as interesting as Straw Dogs.

Straw Dogs tapped into the most primitive side of me, exercised my demons, terrified me, and sent me on my trembling, clenched way. Straw Dogs is the standard on which horror should be judged.

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