Rod Lurie’s Straw Dogs—a remake of the 1971 film by Sam Peckinpah—is perhaps the most superfluous remake exercise ever. (Or at least the most superflous since Gus Van Sant attempted his very peculiar shot-for-shot remake of Psycho in 1998.) The main problem is not that Lurie’s remake is inferior to the original—though it is—but rather that its shock value is long gone. All that’s left is a semi-effective, sometimes incomprehensible, out of its time, revenge picture in search of a drive-in theater that closed 30-odd years ago—which is really where this film belongs.
Peckinpah’s film was a product of its time. It was Vietnam-era stuff. It spoke to that sensibility. It brought graphic violence to the screen—as did Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and Ken Russell’s The Devils, which were from the same year—in a way that shocked and horrified viewers. Even in the context of Peckinpah’s own, often violent filmography, this was a departure. The balletic, highly stylized, slow-motion bloodiness of his The Wild Bunch (1969) was nowhere to be seen here. Here, the violence became, if anything, even faster than reality—and deliberately nasty. Its point was to shock—and to alert the viewer to the violence that lay dormant in everyone. Not only that, but it served as a warning that society was turning the same violent corner that the main character was and was likely to find that it wouldn’t know its way home.
So, here we are 40 years later, with the story intact—almost point for point—but with the disturbing ambiguity of the original dropped (along with any nudity, presumably disturbing as well), the location changed and a more vapid cast to tell the tale. The changes do nothing to help. Moving the story to the American South instead of rural England was not a good idea. Among other things, most of the audience no longer feels out of place and are no longer tied to the main character in the same way. It also kills the idea that the character is trying to get away from the violence pervading his own country. What we get instead is a series of good ol’ boy yahoo cliches set in an entire community of fundamentalist Christians. It’s been turned into Straw Dogs Meets Deliverance—with the significance of neither.
Changing Dustin Hoffman’s wimpy mathematician to James Marsden’s preeningly wimpy Hollywood screenwriter is one of those changes that immediately trigger a kind of “You’re kidding, right?” response. Only they’re not kidding. That Marsden is supposedly writing a movie about the Siege of Stalingrad is another groaner, but one of the cheesy symbolism kind. See? The character will live out his own siege in the course of the film. The line between sybolism and silliness has rarely been thinner. I’m also not sure what the deal was with giving Marsden a 1967 Jaguar XK-E with a hood ornament the car never had. Its presence is kind of explained, but it plays out like something that was tacked on so the yahoos could shoot the ornament off. Well, why not?
Otherwise the remake covers the same territory—and so completely by rote that, for me, it became difficult to stay awake in between set pieces as the movie slogged its way toward the violent finale. If you don’t know the story, you may get more out of it: An outsider and his wife move to her small home town where they’re harassed, raped and/or menaced by the locals leading to a showdown. The acting is no great shakes. James Marsden perhaps thought this was a step-up from being the new Easter Bunny in Hop, but this feels like the Easter Bunny going medieval on a bunch of rednecks more than than anything. Kate Bosworth is Kate Bosworth, Alexander Skarsgård is beefy, and James Woods chews the scenery. Now, if they could have worked that bear-trap business into I Don’t Know How She Does It, they’d’ve been onto something.
Will anyone be talking about this Straw Dogs 40 years from now? Really? It’s unlikely they’ll be talking about it 40 days from now. Rated R for strong brutal violence including a sexual attack, menace, some sexual content, a pervasive language.