REVIEW: Straw Dogs Remake Trades Edgy Complexity For Genre Schlock
As I've mentioned, I've never been the type to get hives over the remake announcements that seem to crop up in the trades every other day, or who feels that a bad redo can somehow denigrate its original. I understand that the idea of people associating The Wicker Man with Nicolas Cage karate kicking Leelee Sobieski into a wall instead of the 1973 Christopher Lee version can be a little painful, but overall what's the harm, so long as the film at least tries to bring something interesting to the table?
That said, there are few films that are worse candidates to receive a Hollywood gloss than Straw Dogs, Sam Peckinpah's nasty, brutish and sharp 1971 film about how we're all just animals underneath the surface, prone to dominance displays and aggressiveness, merely fooling ourselves into thinking we're not slaves to fleshly impulses. The original Straw Dogs starred Dustin Hoffman as David Sumner, a masculinity-challenged mathematician who moves with his hotcha wife Amy (Susan George) back to her rural Cornwall hometown, only to clash with the rough-hewn villagers, and is centered around a controversial and much-discussed rape scene that suggests that Amy enjoys it when her brawny former lover forces himself on her. It's nihilistic and violent and a virtuoso bit of filmmaking, and it has the capacity to linger with and disturb you long after your first viewing.
This new version of Straw Dogs, written and directed by Rod Lurie (of Resurrecting the Champ and The Contender), has been contemporized, sanitized and stripped of all complexity, and what's left is as empty as a used piñata. The action's been transported to a small Mississippi town named Blackwater, and the cast has been prettied up -- James Marsden plays David, now a Los Angeles screenwriter planning to hole up in a bucolic part of the Deep South to finish his script about the Battle of Stalingrad. Amy (Kate Bosworth) has become an actress whose supporting role on a network procedural means she's the local superstar. Alexander Skarsgård is her ex, Charlie, who is, like the rest of his construction crew who take on the job of repairing the hurricane-wrecked roof of the barn next to Amy's childhood home, a former high school football hero whose glory days are gone.
The red state/blue state divide is carved out with a ham fist -- David drives a Jaguar, likes to listen to classical music and tries to pay for everything with a credit card, even at the town picnic. He's constantly condescending, wears a Harvard Lacrosse T-shirt and walks out in the middle of a church service because God's not his thing. Charlie and his crew get around in a pickup with a Confederate bumper sticker that reads "These Colors Don't Run," drink at a bar that only has Budweiser on tap (David's attempt to order a Bud Light is shot down), blast hard rock and love to go huntin'. Charlie is capable of making the denim/denim combination sometimes referred to as a "Texas tuxedo" look rather fetching, which has to be a point in his favor. As the macho posturing escalates, Amy starts needling David, suddenly needing him to become more like the men she grew up with rather than the kind of guy who suggests she put on a bra when she complains that the contractors are shamelessly ogling her.
Other than a moment in which she strips down for the workers by an open window out of revenge after a tiff with David, Amy's absolved of much of the retrograde behavior in this take on Straw Dogs. She isn't trying to provoke the townies -- she begs to leave, and the rape scene, when it arrives, is far less muddied. This centering of Amy seems a way around the accusations of misogyny that were aimed at Peckinpah's version, but it also puts her in the more typical position of a female character being the voice of reason, the sane one, while everyone else around her gets to be a luxuriant asshole.
Open violence finally erupts in Straw Dogs because of an Of Mice and Men-ish accident involving the mentally disabled Jeremy Niles (an incredibly miscast Dominic Purcell). His wife has kept what happened to her a secret from David, which makes the stand he takes on behalf of Jeremy bitterly ironic -- after everything that's come to pass, this is his breaking point? And yet the film doesn't seem to see the irony -- the film seems to think it's finally gotten to the exciting part, and there's not denying the audience at my screening cheered on the splatter like it was a long time in coming, like they agreed with Charlie that it was high time David learned to nut up and defend his home.
When you set aside the film that served as its source material, this new Straw Dogs is left a clumsy, culture war-baiting revenge B-movie that seems assured of its relevance without actually settling on meaning. It includes seemingly significant elements -- the shadows of war, religious belief, ethical convictions -- without actually using them for anything other than decoration for what's really just two pretty boys cockfighting.