Southern Movie: “Straw Dogs”
I knew from the opening scenes, when we see a truckload full of rednecks whooping and hollering down a winding backroad then wandering through the deep woods to gander at a deer they’ve killed, that Straw Dogs was going to be violent and that these rednecks would be the reason. This 2011 film centers on the conflicts that arise when a newly married young woman who has become a famous TV actress returns to her small hometown of Blackwater, Mississippi, to stay in her family’s homestead while her screenwriter husband works on his next project. As they arrive, the newlyweds stop at the local watering hole for a burger, and who do they run into? Those four rednecks, one of whom happens to be the hometown girl’s old boyfriend. The couple hires the old boyfriend to rebuild a damaged barn on the neglected property they are returning to— and everyone is in their proper places for the conflict.
In terms of Deep Southern culture, we have several issues at hand in Straw Dogs. First, an outsider – Hollywood screenwriter and Harvard graduate David Sumner – has come to town. Second, that outsider has married (taken) the prettiest girl in town, Amy, for himself. Third, Amy used to be the best girl of the big, blonde, handsome lead dog, Charlie. Fourth, it becomes quickly clear that David Sumner doesn’t understand that he has entered a Third World country – Mississippi – where no one appreciates his classical music or his winning smile, and where no one works or has any respect. Fifth, Amy decides to tempt old boyfriend Charlie when husband David won’t man up and deal with the four disrespectful hicks who have made the barn roof their beer-drinking hangout, complete with music blasting. The only thing I’ve left out by this point is the sub-plot that involves Coach, the drunken and impulsively violent retired football coach whose fifteen-year-old daughter has caught the eye of the local retard, who believes that she is his girlfriend.
I won’t spoil the plot or the ending (yet) – you’re welcome to watch it if you want to – but I do want to address some of the aspects of the film that provide portrayals of the Deep South and its people.
There really is a place called Blackwater, Mississippi, which is about halfway between Oxford and Memphis, Tennessee, up in the Hill Country, but that location doesn’t jive with this film’s insinuations that we’re in the southern parts of the state, in the bayous near the Gulf. The terrain that we see is dense and swampy, the scenes are humid and sweaty, and the 45 that the characters keep playing from Amy’s dead father’s record collection is a zydeco tune. All signs point to this story taking place in southern Mississippi, but Blackwater is in the Hill Country. Also if this was in the real Blackwater, which is about 25 miles from Oxford, there would be Ole Miss shit everywhere— signs and posters on walls and windows, baseballs caps on heads, plates on cars, everything!
In term of realism in the portrayals, Straw Dogs gets some things right, but others very wrong. What do they get right? The small-town preoccupation with high school football, the veneration of the local coach to demi-god status, and day laborers taking the afternoon off to go hunting even though the work isn’t nearly finished— all of these things jive with the Deep South’s way of life. I thought that the most realistic character in the movie was the relatively minor Bic, an ever-smiling doughboy in a ball cap and a scruff of beard who would rather have a good time than work.
However, the Devil is in the details.
The first point when I realized the film’s portrayal of the Deep South was flawed is in having a black sheriff. What’s wrong with having a black sheriff, you ask? Well, in most Deep Southern states, the sheriff is an county-level elected office, and the only way that a rural Mississippi county would have a black sheriff is if the population was majority-black. But in Straw Dogs, the sheriff is the only black person I remember seeing in the whole movie. Also, in the end of the film, at the big football game, the fans at the public high school’s first game are all white, and when Coach is looking for his daughter and asks the other cheerleaders if they’ve seen her, none of the cheerleaders are black. If there were enough black people in a county to have a black sheriff, most of the cheerleaders would have been black, because most of the school population would be black, because most of the families there would be black. The sheriff’s black-ness only comes into play in the movie’s final scenes, when Coach’s racist side finally shows itself, but we understand throughout the movie that the sheriff is not completely one of the boys. It wouldn’t matter if the black sheriff character was an “Iraq war hero;” that still wouldn’t have gotten him elected sheriff. In this setting, the sheriff should have been white, or whoever cast the extras should have done their homework.
The other point when I realized that the film’s portrayal was flawed was when the four local redneck-villains are going to lay off work early to go hunting on their first day of work. My ears perked up like a dog that a caught a scent: it can’t be hunting season. It’s warm enough to be sweating, and the new arrivals are driving around with the top down on their convertible Jaguar. I knew right then . . . Beyond that, when Charlie and the boys claim to be going hunting, Amy – a daughter of Mississippi whose father had guns and even bear-traps all over the house – would have laughed out and exposed the lie. But she didn’t and didn’t even appear to have any clue. Yet, if she had exposed that fallacy, it would have derailed the next flub in the plot.
Later in the movie, Charlie and his cohorts finally talk the naive out-of-towner David into going hunting with them. First mistake: while they’re out there, Sumner is the only one they put in hunter’s orange; the rest of the good ‘ol boys do with out, remaining in their regular clothes. Then, when David Sumner ducks under a shot that comes from behind him in the fog, a great big buck goes running by him, jumping over him as he lays on the ground. Everybody and their grandaddy down here knows that deer run when it’s cold. Of course, David gets abandoned – Amy is raped twice while he’s out there – and when the black sheriff picks him up . . . then David finds out that it’s not even hunting season. Hell, any Southerner watching the movie knew that already!
Just for the sake of it, I looked at Mississippi’s 2012-2013 hunting season schedule, to see if anything was open at that time, and the only thing open in August and September is raccoon season. How do I know that the film is set in late August or early September? Because some of the plot is centered on the first football game of the year. Everybody and their grandaddy down here knows when football season starts! Even despite the trickery played on the outsider, three things are fundamentally wrong with the hunting aspect of the film: a) country boys know wouldn’t be hunting in hot weather, b) a hunter’s daughter would have known better, and c) deer run when it’s cold.
Finally, I have one major beef with the writer and director of Straw Dogs, Rod Lurie. It didn’t take me long to figure out that a Southerner didn’t make this movie. I looked up Lurie’s bio on Imdb.com to make sure I was right:
Born in Israel, Lurie spent his childhood living in Connecticut and Hawaii. At age 18 he began attending the highly prestigious U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Upon graduation in 1984, he spent 4 years serving in the army, which took him to various cities in the U.S. and Europe.
I took real offense at David Sumner’s short monologue during which he attempts to assess the lack of human value of the four local-yokels who quickly become the bane of his existence. While standing in the kitchen, discussing the difficulty that her old friends’ rowdy behavior is causing his ability to work on his screenplay, David says to Amy that the four men are “straw dogs;” he likens these small-town Mississippians to worthless sacrifices made by the Chinese. He comments that, now that they can no longer play football for the local high school, the men have no value to the world or society. Amy, a local herself, clearly takes offense at this assessment— and so did I, especially coming from a Harvard graduate who had arrived in the South for the first time only a few days before. This moment that David Sumner chooses to wax philosophic, proclaiming to his wife, “You’re not one of them, at least not any more,” really shows how some ignorant people claim superiority to Southerners, who they regard as ignorant.
Another difficulty for me about this film is the ending. Charlie and the fellas have harassed and belittled David, not done the work they were contracted to do, raped Amy twice, and (by the end) aided Coach in something like an attempted lynching or a home invasion, which includes the murder of a law enforcement officer. Yet, somehow David Sumner’s victory over these barbaric acts is handled more like the symbolic victory of a representative of civilized world over the ignorant and evil minions of the Deep South, on their own turf.
Other than the sheriff, no one in this small Mississippi town is featured as being good and decent and kind. For example, no one comes out and welcomes Amy back to town, another unrealistic flaw in the film. Both decent people we meet who are from Blackwater, Mississippi are a people who left Blackwater, Mississippi: Amy Sumner and the sheriff. In the absence of morally good life-long Southerners, we are left to assume that Charlie and Coach and the other lazy, violent, antagonistic killers and rapists are the norm in Mississippi small towns— well, other than one movie actress and an Iraq war veteran. Heck, even the white preacher at the pre-game church service chooses a reading from Revelation where he talks about the Fourth Beast of the Apocalypse! Whatever happened to John 3:16?
Straw Dogs also ends with no real-world justice. David Sumner stands, drenched in blood, watching the barn burn— an allusion certainly to William Faulkner. Sumner has managed through his wily ingenuity to defeat five angry and violent men who came for blood, who were well-armed, and who had a lifetime of experience with guns— yet who didn’t just shoot him. The credits roll with no closure on major real-world problems: Charlie and Norman both raped Amy, Jeremy killed Coach’s daughter, and David has five near-mutilated corpses strewn all over their house. Heck, by the end, they haven’t taken Jeremy to the hospital for the bone sticking out of his arm!
As the credits begin to roll, I had my last WTF? moment with Straw Dogs. Nobody could stand right in front of a barn fully engulfed in flames; the heat would have melted David’s face! Standing in the driveway, David would have been twenty feet from a three-story-tall bonfire. If David had stood that close, pensively watching, in a few minutes the whole front of his body would have looked like the hot dog you dropped in the campfire.
On Imbd.com, Straw Dogs rated a 5.7, which sounds pretty generous to me. Its categorization is probably suspense, and there’s definitely tension in this story from the word go. And brutality . . . plenty of it. But its Deep Southern setting provided way too many opportunities for the writer/director, cast, etc. to make mistakes. As a representation of the Deep South, Straw Dogs is about half-right half the time. I get that the movie is a re-make of the 1971 film of the same name . . . but this one got lost in translation.