It’s difficult to approach Rod Lurie’s remake of the 1971 film Straw Dogs with objectivity. Remaking films has become, for all intents and purposes, the norm in the modern era of cinema — it feels like two out of every three films released are either sequels (warranted or unwarranted) or remakes. Generally speaking, one can try to distance themselves from the original, however Lurie has undertaken a mammoth task. He’s not just remaking a film, he’s remaking a film by Sam Peckinpah, one of the most fascinating, talented and controversial film makers in cinematic history. So to separate the two films becomes the greatest challenge. It’s especially so here because Peckinpah’s film was such a visceral, complicated film — whereas Lurie’s is a meager imitation.
This version of Straw Dogs is the story of David (James Marsden) and Amy Sumner (Kate Bosworth), a semi-successful Hollywood couple (he’s a screenwriter, she’s an actress) who return to Amy’s childhood home in rural Blackwater, Mississippi to find a quiet solace for David to work on his newest screenplay, while also supervise the repair of Amy’s barn that was ruined in a recent hurricane. They employ a crew of locals run by Charlie (Alexander Skarsgård) to fix up the barn, an endeavor complicated by the fact that in Amy’s previous life in Blackwater, she and Charlie were an item. Cultures quickly clash as David encounters a simmering resentment beneath Charlie and company’s aw-shucks, good ole boy veneer, brought on by David’s milquetoast stutterings and pretentious, big-city attitude. He tries to fit in with the local color, mistaking their Spartan existence and hardscrabble mentalities for charming Americana.
Further complicating things is the deteriorating relationship between David and Amy, who find that Amy’s return creates an increasingly bitter resentment between them. David clearly feels emasculated by Charlie and his rough-and-tumble crew, and Amy senses and not-so-subtly resents his lack of a backbone when it comes to dealing with them. The irony (one of the many) is of course that it’s those conventional gender roles and paternalistic attitudes that drove her from her town in the first place. Things escalate when Amy begins to feel threatened by the leering gazes of Charlie’s men, and David proves inadequate in confronting them about it. With each passing day, the crew encroaches further into their lives, as Charlie’s seemingly generous nature is quickly revealed to be a ploy to unman David and reclaim Amy. Things inevitably come to a head, leading to a series of increasingly cruel and violent confrontations, climaxing with an all-out siege of the Sumner’s home which he is then forced to defend.
Here’s the problem with comparing it to the 1971 Straw Dogs, a brilliantly executed film that, despite its numerous controversies and questionable morality (not to mention the ongoing debate about the misogynistic tones of both the film and Peckinpah himself): Lurie (who also wrote the screenplay) has created an absolute mess of a film. It lacks all of the nuance and ethical dilemmas of its predecessor, most notably by the fact that, despite keeping most of the characters intact, he’s somehow managed to make every single one of them completely unlikable and unrelatable. One of the fundamental principles — at least I hope it’s one of them — of remaking a film is to bring a new light to its story, to show something different. In that respect, Lurie has succeeded, but the changes he’s wrought serve no purpose other than to make the film an unpleasant, nihilistic quagmire. David hides his fear of confrontation and his insecurities by becoming a condescending ass to Laurie, while she grows more and more shrewish, deriding his every action. Charlie is creepy and stalkerish, and his cohorts are little more than redneck caricatures.
What Lurie has done is substitute an analysis of the darker alleys of the human journey with a palate pasted with broad stereotypes and stultifying, simplistic tropes. The townspeople are little more than yokels, reinforcing every Southern hillbilly trope there is. David is a haughty jackass who takes out his insecurities about his lack of manliness on his wife. Amy alternates between sexpot, harpy, and helpless damsel without a lick of common sense. None of them escape their characters unscathed, which is unfortunate because in truth, there are some solid performances. Most notable is Skarsgård’s Charlie, who despite his inherent creepiness, still manages to portray his character with some deftness. Unfortunately, Lurie depends more on Skarsgård’s physicality (seriously, the man is a ridiculous physical specimen) than his acting chops to demonstrate his intimidation of David. Marsden does a decent job as David — that is to say, he does a decent job of portraying a petty, pretentious, ignorant and nerdy twit — but he’s stumbling in the footsteps of a giant, and Marsden is no Dustin Hoffman. Bosworth is easily the weakest link, delivering her lines with an awkward woodenness that’s rendered worse by her shallow character. The supporting cast approach their roles gamely, but ultimately feel like afterthoughts. Dominic Purcell, playing Jeremy the village idiot, delivers his lines without any affect at all, and conversely James Woods, as the cruel, miserable town drunk goes the other way, overacting to the point of parody. Worst of all is the complete waste of Walton Goggins as Jeremy’s caretaker.
The challenge that Lurie faced was to take an already difficult story and somehow give it new life. The original is most notorious for two scenes (if you haven’t seen or don’t know about the original - spoilers ahead!): the rape scene, and the final siege of the Sumner’s home. The rape scene is probably one of the more famous ones in film history, mainly because of the ambiguity surrounding it and the complexity of the emotionality it contains. That complexity is completely removed in Lurie’s version, and it detracts from the scene’s — and the film’s — overall effect. He tried for a different angle, instead trying to make the victim more sympathetic by making her attackers more brutal and vile. What happens, though, is it instead becomes — and there’s no good way to write this — just another rape scene. That is to say, it serves no purpose in terms of the story. It’s nasty and unpleasant and when the second man joins in, it’s done with a bizarre, vulgar sense of resignation that simply makes no sense. I have a hard enough time sitting through a rape scene in a film, but to create one that barely serves any purpose other than to make two unlikable characters even more unlikable, it begins to feel exploitative and almost lecherous.
The siege itself is the big payoff, and it’s certainly a gripping affair. Yet at times it feels more like an homage to Saw than to one of cinema’s greats, a graphic, monstrous exercise that’s brought about by a situation that defies all logic. In the original, there’s a series of terrible accidents that sets the events in motion, yet here it’s done with a startling deliberateness that’s incongruous with the story. Originally, the events that push the gang of marauders over the edge was a total accident from which there was no return. Instead, Lurie opted to simply once again turn his characters into vicious beasts without subtlety or even humanity.
It’s that lack of humanity that’s ultimately the undoing of Straw Dogs. By hamfistedly depicting his characters as such shallow, purposeless cliches, he’s removed any sense of depth or complexity. There’s no debate as to the characters’ misogyny, not moral or ethical ambiguities. They are misogynistic assholes, and ultimately, yes, they get what’s coming to them. But that story isn’t really worth telling, is it? Men are mean, they treat a woman like shit, they get killed for it. That’s simply a revenge tale, and by telling it that way, it makes all the moments in between useless. This version of Straw Dogs reduces its characters to their basest states from the get-go, replacing any feeling of realness with gross oversimplification and an inarticulate sense of human nastiness. It’s brutality for brutality’s sake, instead of becoming a consequence of a series of terrible events. There’s no story worth telling here, no new spins on old tales, no deeper examinations of the human condition. Instead, it feels like ripping off a scab just to see the blood beneath.