Straw Dogs (United States, 2011)

September 17, 2011
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Straw Dogs Poster

Sam Peckinpah's 1971 adaptation of Gordon Williams' novel elicited more controversy than the uncompromising director expected, in large part because of the unflinching and somewhat ambiguous depiction of a double rape. In addition to the unexpurgated edition, Straw Dogs exists in numerous cut versions, each of which trims down this sequence, in many cases to the detriment of the film. Despite its brutality, or perhaps because of it, Straw Dogs became a cult classic, although its infamous violence almost seems tame by the standards of a motion picture era that has embraced slasher films and torture porn. Director Rod Lurie's adaptation does not shy away from the kind of gut-wrenching violence remembered from Peckinpah's interpretation (in fact, it may be more gruesome in some instances), but it is unlikely to generate much in the way of controversy, unless it's the one that accompanies any remake: why is this necessary?

Lurie, whose bread-and-butter has been more cerebral thrillers, would seem an odd choice to direct Straw Dogs, but he remains faithful to the 1971 screenplay. Unlike the slew of recent filmmakers embarking upon remakes, Lurie does not claim he has ignored the earlier film and is basing his version entirely on the original source material. Indeed, if anything, Lurie is shortchanging Williams' novel and working primarily from the Peckinpah/Goodman script. The changes are minor - the setting has been moved from England to the United States' Gulf Coast, the profession of the protagonist has shifted from that of mathematician to screenwriter, and the town drunk has become a belligerent ex-football coach. Although the time period has jumped forward 40 years, one might recognize this only upon careful reflection. The town in which Straw Dogs takes place appears trapped in the '70s.

James Marsden and Kate Bosworth are David and Amy Sumner, a young Hollywood couple who have come to her hometown for a respite from the hustle-and-bustle of California. He wants a quiet place to write; she is more ambivalent about the return to her roots. No sooner have they arrived in his vintage Jag than they encounter Amy's high school flame, Charlie (Alexander Skarsgård), whose easy smile hides darker motives. David, eager to make friends, hires Charlie and his three cronies (Rhys Coiro, Billy Lush, Drew Powell) to rebuild his barn. That's when the psychological games begin, with the workers arriving at the crack of dawn, drinking on the job (and walking uninvited into the house to pilfer beers from the refrigerator), and knocking off early to go hunting. Amy becomes increasingly irritated at David's passivity when it comes to confronting Charlie about this. What she may not realize is that a silent, unspoken alpha-male territorial battle has begun. In the end, Charlie's brutally direct approach forces David to change tactics.

Straw Dogs is disquieting, primarily because what seems on the surface to be a clear-cut battle between "good" (as represented by the sunny Hollywood couple) and "evil" (as represented by the Deliverance-inspired rednecks) turns into a more ambiguous struggle. If there's a message to be uncovered, it's about how thin the veneer of civilization is and how easily a cultured, intelligent man can be reduced to where he's defined by his baser instincts. To fight Charlie, David must descend to his level. He cannot reason with Charlie, or charm him, or best him in an intellectual struggle. Charlie is a product of the kill-or-be-killed mentality in which the strong take what they want and the weak perish.

But is David really "good"? On the surface, that may seem to be a ridiculous question, but it doesn't take much digging to discover that Lurie, like Peckinpah, is fascinated by the idea that the seemingly mild, non-confrontational pacifist may be the villain in all of this. His presence instigates much of the violence. He evidences a dismissive, superior attitude toward the denizens of the town. His smile is a smarmy half-smirk. He belittles their god and insults their pastor. His passive-aggressive approach results in his wife committing an act of overt stupidity. Charlie & company are doing what they are programmed to do; David is pushing their buttons. Because the screenplay represents David and Amy's perspective, we are apt to root for them, but there's an unproduced version of Straw Dogs from Charlie's vantage point that might tell a different tale.

Lurie's approach to the rape is more straightforward than Peckinpah's, depicting it as an act of violence rather than something Amy might have enjoyed on some level. During the home invasion standoff at the end, Lurie wrings significant tension from the situation. The cat-and-mouse games between the inhabitants and the invaders generate more suspense than when Peckinpah choreographed them. However, the subplot involving the "village idiot" (Dominic Purcell) is poorly shoe-horned into the proceedings. This inclusion is an extraneous appendage that Lurie fails to make relevant until the climax (if then).

Marsden is adequate as the laid-back screenwriter and Bosworth does a good job with the internal conflict evident in a character whose love-hate relationship with her hometown extends to her ex-boyfriend. Skarsgård, the object of many women's dark fantasies from his role in True Blood, uses his tight smile and dead eyes to good effect. He's chilling but his good manners never make him seem like an unspeakable monster. That part goes to James Woods, whose ferocity is frightening. Woods has played his share of psychopaths and criminals; his work here can stand alongside the best of them. The actor dominates every scene in which he appears, no matter who else is sharing the screen.

Although the moral ambiguity of Straw Dogs has been softened in the remake, the message and the forceful way in which it is delivered remain the same. The movie is unsettling and, despite a generous helping of suspense in the final half-hour, one does not feel like cheering for the protagonists when they score a hit during the climactic conflict. As unnecessary but not necessarily unwelcome remakes go, this one represents an acceptable update of a non-mainstream title. Cinematic history will remember Peckinpah's Straw Dogs, but Rod Lurie has nothing to be embarrassed about.

Straw Dogs (United States, 2011)