Here, the contrast is between rural and urban; between the American South and the Hollywood star system. I mention that it's a physical/geographical source of identity because, if we're to trust Lurie's film, we're led to believe that hunting is simply what you do in the American South. Hunting, in fact, serves as a kind of overt symbol for our protagonist's character transformation. It's not part of his make-up initially, but it surely becomes a part of it by film's end...
James Marsden offers a fine performance as David Sumner, a screenwriter thrust into a difficult situation when he and his new wife return to Mississippi to fix up the family homestead. It's a traditional "fish-out-of-water" trope, and Marsden delivers a nice turn here. He steps on the wrong toes (opting for a nap while church is in session--a big-time cultural faux pas) and manages to alienate just about everybody around him within a few days of pulling into town. We've seen it all before, but Marsden's transformation from mild-mannered writer to principled fighter is a redemptive journey for the audience. In the scene where he takes down the deer, we understand his conflicted feelings at the same time that we clear an important narrative hurdle: Sumner is willing to pull the trigger.
Good thing, too, because he'll need to in the third act.
There is an undercurrent of sexual antagonism that makes the film appropriately uncomfortable. The rape scene is very hard to take, more emotionally grueling than the brutal on-screen violence in the third act.
I read an interesting criticism of how the American South was depicted in this piece, and I had some of those same thoughts after leaving the theater. While Jacksonville, Florida, is far removed from rural Mississippi, so I could be guilty of provincial thinking here, I will say that the antagonists came off as caricatures. They fit into just about every nice little Southern stereotype you can think of, with Rhys Coiro's portrayal of Norman crossing the line most egregiously.
We had a discussion in our rhetoric session today on the artistic impact of violence and sex in contemporary cinema. In the case of Lurie's version of Straw Dogs, the violence absolutely creates the narrative tension that pushes the film forward. It's gory, to be sure, but never gratuitous.
Overall, I liked it better than many of the critical reviews I read (I'd say a 'B' grade about nails it, no pun intended) and I think it's a fine example of how violence distills some very honest human reactions to conflict...