Get Your Rage On

Get Your Rage On

Straw Dogs, by way of Die Hard, with a little Star Wars and Collateral thrown in.

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?

7 Comments on “Get Your Rage On”

  1. Brian #

    I agree with you that in Die Hard that’s how heroism is displayed but that isn’t universal film grammar. Not to squabble with one off exceptions, I think more than being in same frame it’s the specific victim in foreground killer shooting towards camera that creates the “badness” of it, as in a theater it would seem like the character is shooting someone in the audience. Because having the person in same frame isn’t enough as in Indiana Jones most everyone he kills shares the frame with him when it happens. But to counter the foreground theory Marion shoots someone in the head in foreground who falls revealing Marion smiling with smoking gun. So maybe it’s foreground impact of *faceless* victim, with lots of tension edited in before the killing?

    But it’s like Peckinpah and slow motion death, which he took from Kurosawa who first used it when a kidnapper was killed to underline the humanity of a life lost despite him being a villain, Peckinpah used it to underline impact, and it’s evolved that slow motion death is just to prolong spectacle. Every slow motion death doesn’t equal humble contemplation of the universality of death and every wide shot where someone kills someone doesn’t mean their the villain.


  2. John Perich OTI Staff #

    Because having the person in same frame isn’t enough as in Indiana Jones most everyone he kills shares the frame with him when it happens.

    I don’t recall Indy doing that much killing. The ones that leap to mind are:

    (1) He shoots the swordsman (Raiders of the Lost Ark).
    (2) He lets the mechanic get decapitated by the propeller (same).
    (3) He shoots four Nazis with one trigger pull (The Last Crusade).

    I know I’m obviously missing a few, but Indy slugs far more people than he shoots. It’s not like he’s capping fools all the time. Plus, in the case of #1 and #3, those are shot for comic timing moreso than heroic triumph.

    I think more than being in same frame it’s the specific victim in foreground killer shooting towards camera that creates the “badness” of it, as in a theater it would seem like the character is shooting someone in the audience.

    This is a good point.


    • Brian #

      To belabor my nitpick- flip Die Hard: McClain sharing frame, Gruber always separate; we still interpret Gruber as bad- my proof is that very flip is the basis of Yojimbo, the bad guy uses a gun shooting across frames while the hero uses a sword to face his foe directly within frame. In both cross cutting edits deny/distance the violent act, but we interpret that denial/distance as heroic reluctance in Die Hard and cheap cowardice in Yojimbo.

      Yojimbo’s hero shares the frame with everyone he kills, and with similar ruthless precision as Gruber or Cruise in Collateral, but it’s morally opposite even though it’s shot the same- this admits that sharing the frame emphasizes repercussion of act, but also that there’s something more in the performances and story that cues the audience how to interpret that act.

      I don’t think it’s cherry picking Die Hard when an edit is associative or dissociative because within Die Hard it makes a consistent connection through contrast, but I don’t think it can cut paste to another movie and be the same thing as that editing might emphasize something else entirely given how other story and mise-en-scene elements relate to it within that movie as Yojimbo shows.


      • John Perich OTI Staff #

        But Yojimbo himself is only barely “heroic.” He’s the protagonist, and he’s likable, but he’s a scoundrel who takes advantage of others’ greed and gullibility. Plus, the “swords vs. guns” distinction adds a whole other layer of moral complexity.

        The interesting comparison would be with some other classic Westerns. I need to give this some more analysis (follow-up post!). Good comments!


  3. Brian #

    I’m desperately trying to defend my optimism for the Straw Dogs remake as the original felt convoluted (not mistaking morally challenging for muddiness I mean there’s plot clumsiness) the critics gloss over that in justifying it’s very existence as art, but if they can forgive some of the original’s faults why can’t it be done for the remake?

    I don’t trust Hollywood as much as the next guy but Straw Dogs is not a flawless masterwork and even if it’s remake is equally flawed it will hopefully be as interesting. Maybe it will be like The Producers, where one has better dialogue and performances and the other really good song and dance numbers?


  4. Dimwit #

    The biggest issue between the protagonist and the antagonist is emotion. The good guys always have an emotional involvement. Even the greatest stoic performance — can you say Eastwood? — shows emotional involvement for their acts. Violence is the last resort for the pro. The anti’s OTOH have their violence just below the surface. Hair trigger mentality.

    As your ref: above for Gruber/Takagi. It’s not the blood or even the framing that makes the impact, it’s Rickman’s brilliant portrayal of a surpreme badass. How do we know? His total blasé attitude in killing Takagi. “Not working? OK, bang! Next choice on my list.”
    Gruber is charming, smooth, sophisticated, immensely likeable and totally psychopathic. Classic serial killer profile. McClane is sweaty, dirty, on the edge of panic for most of the movie but overcomes everything to win. He is forced to respond at every turn. David Sumner is the same and so are most protagonists. They are reluctant. That is why they are the heros.

    To muddy the waters… is Leon a hero? Is Mathilda? And I have yet to see The Man from Nowhere but that one should upset the applecart for movie tropes.


  5. Braintree99 #

    One other ‘well actually’ that is delightfully off the point of the importance of visual framing.

    You note the terrorists in Die Hard kill only 4 people, thus making their villain status morally questionable compared to the hero. You seem to forget the botched mass killing on the roof. They had planned to blow up the entire group of hostages and the FBI helicopter (the latter they were ultimately successful in destroying) with the roof explosion. This was to cover their escape, and was there plan all along, even without McClane’s intervention. Clearly this cold blooded killing of the entire office staff (and likely would have included Takagi, even if he had given the codes) frames Gruber and associates as the villains, or at least shows they aspire to be so. Would this plan of violence not give moral justification to the hero’s bullet filled response, even if not successfully carried out?

    One wonders how this movie might have been shot in the form of a caper film, if told from the perspective of a particularly ruthless and smart group of European thieves.


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