1971 was one of those years in cinema where everything seemed to hit at once. A handful of successful movies got released simultaneously, setting new cultural trends. In 1971, A Clockwork Orange, The French Connection, Dirty Harry and Straw Dogs all made their debut. All four featured protagonists who used impulsive violence. While movies with high body counts weren’t new to the 70s, these four turned streets and homes into battlegrounds. This wasn’t the beaches of Normandy or the Wild West. These were familiar environments – the streets of San Francisco, the subways of New York and quaint country homes – being spattered with blood.
The directors and stars of each of those films have since distanced themselves from the violence depicted. They’ve all claimed that their intent was to show the alienating effect that violence has on the social order. That claim holds some water, given the ambiguous endings of the movies above. Popeye Doyle’s heroism in The French Connection is questionable (consider the last person he kills) and Harry Callahan ends Dirty Harry by throwing away his badge. But, as is often the case, the imitators who followed abandoned that complexity. Dirty Harry was followed by Death Wish; A Clockwork Orange by I Spit On Your Grave. By depicting violence in such garish tones, filmmakers turned it from a shock into a spectacle.
And now Rod Lurie (The Last Castle, Resurrecting the Champ) is remaking Straw Dogs.
Here’s the 1971 trailer for Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, starring Dustin Hoffman and Susan George.
Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, though still controversial, is regarded as a classic. You can see both elements present here. The slow pace of the cinematography (note Hoffman slowly turning his back on an English countryside). The unconventional camera angles. And yet there are still exploitative elements as well: the nips-eye view that greets us early in the trailer. The encouragement of Hoffman’s character to violence.
Now here’s the 2011 trailer for Rod Lurie’s Straw Dogs, starring James Marsden, Kate Bosworth and Alexander Sarsgaard:
Largely similar in tone. There’s less evidence of Peckinpah’s camera eye here and more splash-cut action. Marsden nearly getting poleaxed by a log, Marsden nearly getting run over by a deer, etc. But there are plenty of exploitative elements as well, like the shots of Bosworth jogging. And if you didn’t know whether we were supposed to cheer for Marsden’s power-up into a canny berserker, the title cards tell us.
In both versions of Straw Dogs, we have two opponents. On one side there’s the homeowner, David Sumner. On the other, there’s the intruder, Charlie. Charlie uses violence against Sumner’s property: breaking into his home, teasing him for being less than a man, and raping his wife. So Sumner uses violence against the intruder in turn. Sumner is the last man standing, so Sumner wins.
(And yes, in Straw Dogs, the role of David Sumner’s wife is “property.” She is an elegant object with pride of place. She incites men to violence. Peckinpah’s views on women were never exactly progressive)
What makes Sumner the good guy and Charlie the bad guy?
Well, Charlie’s a rapist. And rapists are never good guys. So anyone who’s not Charlie has to be the good guy, right?
That’s one way to look at it. But here’s a short list of ways that Sumner dispatches Charlie – and his goons, who are lumps of flesh and beard with which we’re not meant to empathize – in the 1971 version:
* Boiling oil
* A giant beartrap
* Beating to death with a poker
* Mutilating one’s foot with a shotgun
To that we can add the following in the 2011 remake:
* Nailing one’s hand to the wall with a nailgun
If we look purely at body count, Sumner is the most monstrous of the characters. He maims, cripples and slays half a dozen people. Charlie is guilty of rape and (in the ’71 version) manslaughter. Which of these is the hero?
Please note: I’m not suggesting a moral equivalence between defending one’s home and rape. Self-defense is a recognized right in every society and legal code. But there are different types of self-defense. More importantly, from a cinematic viewpoint, there are different ways to depict self-defense. Turn Sumner’s traps from implements of torture to lighthearted slapstick, and Straw Dogs becomes Home Alone. Charlie and the rapists go to jail, instead of the grave, and the movie ends on an up note.
But Peckinpah went a different route. I’m not interested in why; Peckinpah and more sophisticated film critics have debated the depiction of violence on screen for forty years. Rather, I’m interested in how. When everyone in the movie is covered in blood, how can you tell the heroes from the villains?
Confession: I’ve never seen Straw Dogs. I’m using it as a point to riff off of, rather than the foundation for my argument. Sorry for leading you on. But I’ve probably seen Die Hard a dozen times. Where Straw Dogs ushered in a new era of cinematic violence, Die Hard marked the start of the action blockbuster. While the stakes could still be grim, our hero could address them with wit and charisma.
Die Hard is the story of a man who sneaks around an office building, murdering ten people before he’s sated. This man is NYPD detective John McClane. The terrorists whom he’s trying to dislodge kill four people: two guards in the lobby, Joseph Takagi and Harry Ellis. The last two, it could be argued, are reluctant kills. Hans Gruber would rather get in and out of Nakatomi Tower without having to kill Takagi, and Ellis is an unexpected hassle. McClane shows no such reluctance.
Unlike Straw Dogs, Die Hard is not morally ambiguous. You never question whether or not John McClane’s the hero. Why is that? McClane kills more than twice as many people as the terrorists and does a tremendous amount of property damage besides. But he’s the hero and Gruber’s the villain. How is that so screamingly obvious?
Put aside for now the question of right and wrong. For one thing, in most moral codes, being in the right does not give one absolute license to use any means necessary. For another, there’s a difference between a movie telling us our hero is in the right – through exposition, perhaps, or the title card – and persuading us he’s in the right. If one of the secondary characters popped in every ten minutes to say, “Boy, John McClane sure is doing the right thing,” Die Hard would be awful. Instead, it’s a classic of American cinema.
I’m not interested in why McClane is the hero and Gruber the villain. I’m interested in how we can tell.
A Question of Distance
Here’s the most brutal thing Gruber does: shooting Takagi in the head at close range when he won’t reveal a password.
Note the composition of the image. Both the killer (Gruber) and his victim (Takagi) are in frame. They’re filmed at enough of a distance that both of their torsos are visible. Right now all the details are clear, but in less than a second, there’s going to be a big burst of red that obscures everything.
Now here’s the first guy McClane shoots.
This is resolved in two shots. The first shot is a medium shot, showing McClane’s head, arms and half his chest. It’d be a “two-button shot” if his shirt had buttons on it. We see him firing past the camera, but more importantly, we see the panic on his face. Oh no!
The second shot is a full shot, showing our victim and some surroundings. He jerks back, caught by bullets, and falls down. He bleeds a great deal – note the spurts of red – but the blood never obscures our view of the scene. There’s just enough blood to know that he’s met a violent end, but not so much that the scene is dominated by it.
This is an important distinction. Our hero and his opponent do not occupy the frame at the same time at the moment of execution.
Of course, there’s more than one bad guy in this scene. McClane’s trapped under a table! He squirms backward while the bad guy stalks him. Then he reloads. He fires straight up through the table, gritting his teeth. Again, two frames: one of McClain firing …
… and one of the bad guy getting it.
The audience is never confused. Despite the cut between these two images, we don’t wonder what’s going on (“are these different rooms?”). This is the magic of editing at work, as these two shots were probably not filmed at the same time. Marco probably got it on top of the table (squibs loaded up, splinters of wood popping), then Bruce Willis slid underneath to fire some blanks when John McTiernan called “Cut.” But our hero and his handiwork are separated by that cut.
And most of McClane’s kills take place the same way. McClane fires in one frame and a bad guy gets it in the next.
Compare this to Gruber executing Ellis for not living up to his bargain.
While the actual trigger pull happens off camera, we do see Gruber picking up his gun with Ellis’s head still in frame. The camera later pans over Ellis’s bloody head while Gruber narrates some demands over the radio.
But when John McClane shoots the penultimate villain in the head …
… there’s almost no blood.
The Heroic Journey (Yes, AGAIN)
While not every action film mimics Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, they all borrow one element of the Hero’s Journey: the reluctant departure, or the Refusal of the Call. Our hero does not want to plunge into action. Maybe he’s a weary veteran. Maybe he’s one day away from retirement. Maybe he’s been saddled with a crazy partner. Maybe Poseidon’s got it in for him.
Our hero uses violence reluctantly if he must.
John McClane is at Nakatomi Tower reluctantly. All of the people he meets are yuppie snobs, though he makes a begrudging exception for Joseph Takagi (and look how long Takagi lasts). McClane wants nothing more than to pick up his estranged wife and get out of there. But when terrorists seize the building, McClane plunges into action to save the Nakatomi employees. He arrives reluctantly, but eventually he embraces the Call to Adventure.
To show the distance between our hero and his violent deeds, a canny cinematographer will depict the hero and his victims in separate frames during firefights. There’s a visual separation between the hero and his bloody work that eases the violence in the mind of the audience. Our hero isn’t killing another breathing human being with hopes and dreams. He’s enforcing his will against a cruel universe, firing his gun into the blank spaces just past the camera. If those spaces should happen to contain henchmen, so much the better.
There are other reasons for breaking up the action into different frames as well. Shooting the hero in a medium shot allows the audience to focus more on his face. This is very important for films like Die Hard, where Bruce Willis’s personality is the biggest draw. We need to see him groan and gasp as he sprints across a hall in panic, laying down a hail of bullets. Violence is never impersonal for him. It’s immensely personal. We need to empathize with his struggle. The bad guys shoot at him from a distance; he shoots at them from the middle ground.
To see what a difference perspective makes, consider the “is that my briefcase, homes?” scene from Collateral:
Vincent (Tom Cruise) executes two muggers in a full shot. There’s an imperceptible break (a jump-cut) between him swatting away one of their guns and him blasting both of them. Later, he picks up his briefcase and finishes off one of the wounded without even looking at him. The shot doesn’t change perspective through out: full shot, good distance, everyone’s figures completely in the frame.
That scene could have been filmed a thousand different ways. Imagine if we’d stayed tight on Vincent’s face throughout, interspersed with some smash cuts of guns being drawn and blood spraying. You’ve seen that before. It’s not odd. But Michael Mann, who’s also canny at setting up a shot, framed it this way. Why?
To remind us that Vincent isn’t the hero.
Sure, we may think he’s a bad-ass in that scene. But it’s not meant to endear us to him. Our sympathy still lies with Max tied up in the cab. The muggers are particularly unlikeable – ugly, brutish, ill-spoken and robbers besides. Vincent dispatches them so that the plot can move along. But when he shoots a guy in the face without looking and comes back to the cab, it’s not reassuring.
This brings us back to Straw Dogs.
Straw Dogs, you’ll recall, is about the lengths a man will go to in order to defend his property. Charlie and the thugs he runs with prove that they’re villains by assaulting Sumner’s property. They shoot at his door.
They throw rocks at his house.
And they smash in his windows.
In each of these cases, the villain, his weapon of choice, and the object of his violence are all pictured in the frame at the same time. Why? Because they’re villains. Violence is part of their identity. We must never forget that they’re violent people – that the infliction of their will upon the world causes damage.
What about David Sumner?
Sumner is inseparable from his violence as well. He uses a long, blunt weapon (a fire poker if the movie’s hewing to the 1971 original) to beat one man bloody.
He splashes some boiling oil on another intruder.
And he nails another intruder’s hand to a wall.
The easiest way to distance our hero from violence, and thus make him more sympathetic, is to cut between our hero, the act of violence, and the result. That’s trickier to do with hand-to-hand fighting than with a firefight, but it’s not impossible. Luke Skywalker did it.
Inigo Montoya did it.
But with David Sumner, we see the hero, his action, and the result all in the same frame. Why?
As hundreds of critics before me have mentioned, Straw Dogs is a more serious examination of violence than it might first appear. Peckinpah’s intent was not to glorify violence but to exhume it. If you’d asked him, he would have denied that adventurous heroes are reluctant to use violence. He would have laughed at the idea of the Refusal of the Call. The kind of men who use violence to change the world don’t hesitate to do so. They embrace violence just as readily as the “villains.” It’s part of their nature.
While I haven’t seen Straw Dogs (and maybe I should), I have seen The Wild Bunch. And it’s no accident that The Wild Bunch spends several minutes in the beginning introducing us to a quaint Western town. The first line of dialogue is spoken by legendary leading man William Holden. And those words are: “If they move, kill ‘em!”
Straw Dogs (at least, the ‘71 version) is the story of a man who secretly wanted to use violence all along. He just never had an excuse. The village bullies tormented and pushed him, provoking him to keep retreating. When he had nowhere left to retreat, only then did he bare his teeth.
It remains to be seen whether the remake, 40 years later, will treat Sumner with the same horror. The trailer suggests otherwise. It implies that Sumner is discovering his true self by indulging in violence. The assaults of the town thugs are a favor to him, showing him who he really is.
Perhaps that’s indicative of the film industry’s changing tone on violence. Violence has gone from being a reluctant tool of heroes – Wyatt Earp taking up the Marshall’s badge; Spartacus pressed into rebellion; Hamlet holding himself back from killing his uncle – to a sign of their prowess. Bloody films aren’t new. Blood-soaked heroes aren’t new. But not every blood-soaked film has a hero. Except the remake of Straw Dogs, apparently.