Film Review: Straw Dogs

Writer-director Rod Lurie's remake of the notorious 'Straw Dogs' isn't a terrible movie. It's just not an exceptional one, a liability that increases exponentially with the quality of the original film.

Actress Amy and screenwriter David Sumner (Kate Bosworth, James Marsden), who met on the set of the popular TV show "Perfect Crime," are to all appearances a happily married Hollywood couple. But a stay in Amy's way-down-South hometown, where she intends to sell her late father's farm and David hopes to work on a screenplay about the fall of Stalingrad, is all it takes to lay bare the fault lines in their relationship. In fact, the erosion starts before they're even in town. You'd think that a man who slings words for a living might have noticed the bitterness beneath Amy's flippant observation that Blackwater should by all rights be called Backwater, but David, blinded by magnolia fever, is oblivious: Semi-rural Mississippi is so quaint, what with its lush landscape, picturesquely decaying barns and farmhouses, small-town rituals, archaic manners and old-school attitudes.

So besotted is David that he doesn't immediately realize how differently they play the game of top dog/underdog down here. And by the time he does, David has already lost more ground than he can recoup to Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard) and his bully boys (Drew Powell, Rhys Coiro, Billy Lush), whom he unwisely hired to fix up the property before they put it on the market. Not that David had any way of knowing that one-time football star Charlie was Amy's high-school boyfriend. But failing—or refusing—to notice the seething resentment and flat-out contempt under the superficial politeness…. well, in the eyes of the Blackwater boys, that's exactly the kind of weakness they'd expect from a citified sissy who wouldn't know an honest day's work if it jumped out of the swamp and bit his pansy ass. And to her dismay, superficially, at least, Amy finds herself seeing David through the their eyes.

The Blackwater boys' war on David's masculinity culminates in Amy's rape, but it's the simultaneous disappearance of saucy cheerleader Janice Hedden (Willa Holland) and the mentally challenged Jeremy Niles (Dominic Purcell) that triggers a façade-stripping explosion of violence.

Both Peckinpah's and Lurie's Straw Dogs deviate significantly from Gordon Williams' 1969 source novel, The Siege of Trencher's Farm, but remain faithful to its underlying notion that civilization is a thin veneer laid over animal instincts: The difference between an educated, civilized man and a brutish habitual thug is nothing more than what it takes to strip that veneer away. The new Straw Dogs is inevitably less shocking than the old, for reasons ranging from post-Vietnam War disillusionment with middle-class notions of proper behavior to the ever greater levels of onscreen violence to which ordinary moviegoers have become accustomed.

But the strength of Peckinpah's version and the weakness of Lurie's lie in the ambiguities. Two of the most disturbing moments in the original are gone from the remake: Amy's capitulation to pleasure while being raped by Charlie (a scene Peckinpah and David Zelag Goodman invented out of whole cloth and which was as un-PC in 1971, when the term "politically correct" didn't even exist, as it is now) and David's declaration that he "will not allow violence against this house"—not against his wife or the child-like Niles, but against his property and, by extension, all the property it contains. Each marks a pivotal moment in Amy and David's acceptance of a primitive code of conduct that values brute strength and physical assets over the intangible indicators of prestige and social standing of "sophisticated" societies like Hollywood. Good performances throughout—Skarsgard is the standout—help give Lurie's Straw Dogs considerable weight, but the original is still the better movie by a considerable margin.