'Straw Dogs' Remake: A Mangy Mess
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
Among those who know the film, director Sam Peckinpah's "Straw Dogs" (1971) commands respect but not affection. For a very good reason: It's not at all a lovable film, or a film that's even interested in being loved. Peckinpah's film, about a very troubled married couple who relocate to the wife's childhood home with disastrously violent results, was incredibly controversial at the time of its release. The movie's treatment of male-female relations -- from mutually bonded hostility to outright rape -- the mechanics of self-defense and retribution, and various and sundry related themes, still excite argument today. At least, as noted above, among those who know it, which, we might as well face facts, number as only a very small percentage of paying moviegoers in the United States. So it's not likely that the majority of the target audience for writer-director Rod Lurie's remake of the Peckinpah picture will be paying their money to see whether the new version is quite as fascist, to recall critic Pauline Kael's characterization of the film, as the original.
I don't consider the Peckinpah film fascist, but I don't consider it coherent to begin with. The "Straw Dogs" that starred Dustin Hoffman and Susan George and was set in a particularly unpleasant patch of British countryside registers to me as a cinematic howl of anguish and rage and ultimate despair, a film that confronts the messed-up state of both its characters and its director only a little more than it indulges that state. It's a movie that leers at the breasts of its female lead one minute and adopts her pained point of view the next, and asks the viewer to ultimately identify with a male protagonist who's never been less than a snotty, petulant jerk throughout the picture's running time.
Lurie's version strives to make the film's couple, David Sumner and his wife, Amy, somewhat more likable, and the leads who play them, James Marsden and Kate Bosworth, are engaging enough. The problem with this approach is their ostensible relatability also underscores how, well, dumb the characters are. Here the wife's hometown is a Deep South backwater (the town itself is named Blackwater) that establishes itself as a kind of hell on Earth right off the bat. The local bar, a place Amy informs David is a place where "the world's problems are solved" erupts in about three different ways just as Amy and David are finished lunching there. Here David's a Hollywood screenwriter and Amy's an actress, and they're taking a break from life in the fast lane so David can finish an ambitious Stalingrad screenplay and Amy can ... well, no one's exactly sure what she's supposed to do at her late dad's farm. But as glib a pampered blue-stater as David is, it's difficult to credit the idea that, between Amy's buff, earnest high school ex-love Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard), the boisterous drunken former football coach (James Woods), Charlie's crew of Skynyrd-loving dirtbags, and the local mentally disabled fellow who likes to talk slow to cheerleaders, he doesn't smell some kind of potential trouble. Almost anyone with half a lick of sense might back up slowly the hell out of Dodge, or maybe hire a security detail. But not the Sumners.
Lurie lards his scenario with, on the one hand, some moderately clever jibes at Hollywood convention, and, on the very unfortunate other, a truckload of crushingly literal-minded redneck-bashing stereotypes (and in case you're curious, he has David "explain" the film's title, which was not done in the original) in what eventually devolves into a banal albeit overstated siege-and-revenge set piece. One might argue that Peckinpah himself wasn't exactly Captain Subtlety himself. And Lurie's insistence on tackling hot-button topics (Blackwater's rubes sneers at global warming while prostrating themselves before a local preacher's pre-football-match musings on Revelation-projected apocalypse) also brings to mind another cinematic master of the blunt object, Sam Fuller. Only not in a good way. The observations thrown out strike the viewer as more opportunistic than actually germane. The filmmaker's ham-fisted attempts to supply some socio-political relevance to such intractable material finally lands him in a deeper, murkier swamp than that in which Peckinpah's hobbling but still formidable film still implacably seethes.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.