2011, R, 110 min. Directed by Rod Lurie. Starring James Marsden, Kate Bosworth, Alexander Skarsgård, James Woods, Rhys Coiro, Billy Lush, Drew Powell, Dominic Purcell, Walton Goggins, Willa Holland.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Sept. 23, 2011
Forty years after the original film version by Sam Peckinpah burst into theatres and shocked audiences with its slow-boil savagery and sexually turbocharged dynamics, director Rod Lurie has attempted to capture the same sense of outrage. Peckinpah's film, coming at a truly transgressive moment in American cinema, had the audacity of hopelessness in its favor. Pauline Kael famously called it "the first American film that is a fascist work of art." No such luck here, though. This Straw Dogs is nearly all bark, with the occasional, predictable bite that frankly fails to draw any emotional blood.
Lurie's remake (both films are liberally adapted from a novel by Gordon Williams) cleaves fairly close to Peckinpah's film, trading rural, backward-seeming Cornwall, England, for Blackwater, Miss., while maintaining a similar Deliverance-lite vibe for its protagonist, screenwriter David Sumner (Marsden) and his wife, Amy (Bosworth). Presented as your average, or at least relatively normal, American couple, they've moved from the hurly-burly of Los Angeles to Amy's hometown backwater, ostensibly to fix up the house deeded to Amy by her late father. Once there, the pseudo-urbane David hires Amy's high school boyfriend Charlie (Skarsgård) and his motley crew (Coiro, Lush, Powell) to repair the property's tornado-struck barn. The tension between the presumably meek David and the hillbilly swamp dogs he's hired is immediately apparent, as are Charlie's intentions toward Amy, but as the film slowly spirals from a broody psychological thriller into an outright revenge/horror mash-up, it becomes obvious where everything is heading, which is, of course, nowhere nice.
If Lurie's remake suffers from the foregone conclusion of its story, that's due in large part to the fact that tonally similar films – everything from The Last House on the Left to I Spit on Your Grave and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer – have conditioned audiences to extreme cinematic violence, and in particular, the dreaded home-invasion scenario. A man's home may still be his castle, but now that castle's been under siege for decades. (Nothing new, really; William Wyler's The Desperate Hours remains one of the best of the bunch more than half a century on.) What made Peckinpah's film such a powerful cinematic sucker punch was the fact that his mousy, brainy David (Dustin Hoffman in a role that still crackles today) was, problematically, a man on the run, having fled the chaotic landscape of the United States in favor of an icily bucolic Cornish coast. The issue of cowardice – what it is; whether or not it determines a man's character; what it takes to overcome it – was central to the original film and made its bloody endgame a disquieting journey into masculinity gone mad for the audience.
That's not as foregrounded in Lurie's film, although Marsden and Bosworth look and act like a real couple, complete with barbed tongues and bad ideas, and there are few actors as downright masculine as James Woods, who shows up here as the town’s high school football coach. Ultimately, the remake is, at best, rote and, at worst, totally unnecessary. It doesn't ask you to ponder David's descent into brutal, primal masculinity; it merely asks you to watch it. And that, frustratingly, is nothing new at all.