Marriage, Female Performativity & the Fucked up Family Unit: The Strangers and Feminism

the strangers swing

The first time I watched The Strangers, I couldn’t get it out of my mind for weeks. I wasn’t completely impressed with it – it was standard spooky fare, the kind of thing you don’t mind watching at home on a friday night with a few tinnies and a bowl of popcorn. But past that I presumed that it was fairly forgettable tosh. The kind of thing puked out of the big mindless, movie machine that produces the same slop time and again but just under different names. Except it wasn’t forgettable, in fact I stewed over that film for a while.


The more I thought about it the more I recognised that The Strangers was one of those rare beasts: a feminist horror film. That, in fact, it’s horror was far from literal, but everyday and implicit. The horror in The Strangers has its roots not in people getting all stabby, but with ideas surrounding the isolation of monogamous relationships, the rejection of marriage and matrimonial doom and the imprisonment of traditional gender roles.


I mean, there’s every possibility in the World that I’ve read way too much into this thing, but I’m a firm believer that every component of a well put together piece of media is deliberate. There are no accidents. And The Strangers is a film that’s been well thought out where every gesture, lighting, costume choice and setting is clearly there for a reason. I rewatched it recently, and some shit just seemed really obvious:

So, the film is centred around marriage. Obsessed with it. You could even suggest that the couple at the heart of the movie wouldn’t wind up becoming the butchered victims that they do if not for the fact that they were attending a friends wedding the same day and wind up staying at Scott Speedman’s (who plays the mumbly, heartbroken mope) family house just down the road. Not only this, but the first act of the movie plays out the horror of a drunken couple falling apart at the seams after Liv Tyler rejects her boyfriends proposal of marriage.

AWKWARD

AWKWARD

They return to said family house where there are shredded rose petals spread out over every conceivable surface and where celebratory champagne has been left out to be wasted on drinking down the heartache of refused matrimony. Holy shit, Scott Speedman does not take that shit well. I mean, you’re sleeping with Liv Tyler but you’re all upset because she doesn’t want to make your relationship official in the eyes of God or the law? Whoa. Like, seriously, is it really that big of a deal, Scott Speedman? You were exactly like this in Felicity too, just chill the fuck out dude.

This whole sequence is awkwardly realistic: who hasn’t had one of those nights out with their partner for a occasion that’s supposed to be special which winds up with you both drunkenly arguing and attempting sloppy, desperate make up sex afterwards? Forget the torture of the couple, the knife wounds and the terror, the real horror at the crux of The Strangers is about a drunken argument, a needless break up in action and the destruction of a relationship.

It’s very telling, for one thing, that they receive the first knock on the door from the three killers – a freakishly persistent young woman looking for someone who definitely does not live there – comes as the couple are trying to make peace with one another by unbuckling pants, slipping dress straps off shoulders and lapping tongue round each others fillings. Right before they get to make some harrowing, sad sex on the matrimonial shrine set up on the dining table, they’re disturbed by the people who will end their lives the very same night.

I mean, you don’t need a wedding ring to get busy, eh Scotty? So what’s the problem? Anyway, this feels pretty deliberate. All of it, from the sad-almost-sex to the pounding on the door (substituting one for another, eh?) are so aggressive. Every gesture, mumble, silent communication and miscommunication quietly seethe, thickening up the atmosphere with a placid, everyday violence – the aggression of the unsaid.

Anyway, they get rid of the girl and instead of returning to the sad, sexy times they were about to embark on return to the fight which sees poor old Scott Speedman decide to down a bottle of champers before drunk driving off into the distance to leave his non-fiance to stay in a strange house and think about what a goddamn bitch she is for not accepting his proposal. Real responsible. It would have been a nice move to have Scott crash his car and die on the way out of the house for being too pissed to steer, with the killers looking on with disappointment that their new shiny blades will never see his insides, but nevermind.

pretty-in-pink

Prior to all of this, in the middle of the fight, Liv Tyler decides it’s a good time to take a bath. Scott Speedman tells her that there’s some clean clothes waiting for her in the bedroom – because he assumed he’d be in for a few days of good times, instagramming the big, shiny diamond on her finger and designing wedding dresses, but nevermind – to which she responds that, no, she’ll carry on wearing the frock she donned for the wedding because it ‘makes her feel pretty’.

There’s so much between the lines in this film, and this bit in particular is spot on in framing a woman desperately attempting to maintain a female identity that she’s brought up to believe she needs. Juxtapose this with the fact that she’s just turned down marriage and spends a great deal of time before the killers gatecrash the house just staring, completely detached and despondent, at the ring she’s been given to wear for an engagement that will never happen, and you have someone conflicted about the very idea of wanting to be the sort of woman that the World tells her she should be, but not having the disposition to play it out.

When the knocking continues on the door of the house, and the battery dies on her phone, and she realises she’s completely alone to deal with the strange things that keep happening within the house, she finally changes out of the ‘pretty’ dress and into what are stereotypically masculine clothes: a plaid shirt and jeans. Once again, she could have stayed in that dress. It would have made no difference to the movie at all if she did. But to take on clothes that are in complete contrast to the dress speak volumes about the themes at hand.

I mean, I don’t know about you but I’ve got plenty of experience with being left alone in a house following an argument and just having to stew. That shit is the worst. It is the spiritual equivalent of being ambushed by three strangers wearing stupid masks and getting stabbed in the gut, let me tell you. The fact that Scott Speedman, too, chooses to leave her completely alone also fits perfectly into this framework – it reflects the archaic sentiment that a woman either accepts marriage or is doomed to live alone.

There are so few victims in this movie – just the couple and a poor bastard friend coming to save Scott Speedman from drinking himself into a incoherent hole who Scott accidentally shoots in the head – which to me feels like a clear reflection of this being a movie about the death of a relationship. It isn’t just the couple who suffer it, but also the friends. Have you ever had a friend who post-breakup just does your fucking head in over-analysing every misstep and drunkenly babbling on about how that 4am text message might just be the thing that might get them back together? Come on, be honest…That dude that gets shot in the head? Yeah, Scott Speedman did his head in. Let’s get literal with this shit.

Anyway, Scott Speedman tries to be the protective alpha male here, saving his girlfriend from the unknown horrors of the night, shotgun in hand, even though he lied to her about being a hunting expert (what? You mean you can’t be the hunter gatherer? Holy fuck. Good job I rejected your marriage proposal, asshole. I need a man who can shoot me fresh deer meat every day), so it then comes down to his girlfriend to load that gun for him. But besides that, Liv Tyler plays the submissive, sobbing woman just doing what she’s told and making clumsy decisions that eventually get her ass (possibly?) killed.

the-strangers-crawling-chase

She’s in survival mode, sure. And it could be argued that she does a whole bunch better than her mopey, dopey beau, but it isn’t enough. There’s no escape. In fact, once their house gets invaded they pretty much play housewife and husband – completely isolated and cut off from everything with only each other to trust and depend on which is exactly the kind of cynical opinion on marriage that I love. I mean, it’s like Doug Stanhope wrote this shit.

Skip to the end and what do you know? Liv Tyler is back in that pretty dress from earlier, and her and her non-fiance sit like a novelty wedding cake topper of a bloodied and broken bride and groom tied into place on their death thrones. They say their vows to each other – like, seriously, both professing their eternal love and all of that stuff – and till death to they part, folks. That’s it. The strange trio get knife happy and slaughter them.

vows

Does Liv Tyler die? I hate that shock scare ‘She’s not really dead!’ final frame bullshit. It’s nice that they made her into a Final Girl, but it’s so fucking sloppy it hardly seems worthwhile.

Anyway, the masks that the killers wear are pretty interesting too. They’re dramatically genderised and sort of resemble a dramatically cartoonish ‘happy family’ that Liv Tyler is rejecting by turning down her fella’s marriage proposal. There’s the little girl (‘Dollface’) mask, the Mother mask (‘Pin Up Girl’) and the Father mask (‘Man in the Mask’) – it’s a fucked family unit and a reflection of the main themes.

strangers-contest-masks

Even more interesting is the fact that whilst the female masks are obviously female – make up, hairstyles and all – the male mask is simply a sack, which seems to segue in well with the performativity of being female and comes back to that idea of the ‘pretty’ bridesmaids dress again which Liv Tyler both loves but realises is completely impractical to her survival. There is less performance for the male, besides the wearing of a suit. There is no make up and no hairstyles. Just a generic face on top of a generic suit. Manly, manly, manly.

I mean, am I reading too much into this? Surely you guys all see it too, right? There’s been talk for years about a sequel getting made and (groan) Liv Tyler might allegedly be reprising her role, which, I dunno, maybe it’s going to be a post-feminist rip on the survival and strength of women but probably they’ll just up the body count and torture a couple who are less easy to riff into whatever bleak World view I subscribe to, but whatever.

It’d be nice to see her slaughtering the murderous fucked up family unit that killed her fella from the first film. But that’s just how I’d play that game – go down the revenge movie genre route. Watch Liv Tyler go mental – which is maybe how the first film should have ended.

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