Film Review: “Straw Dogs”

by Jason LeRoy on September 16, 2011

James Marsden tries to reason with Alexander Skarsgard's muscle tee in STRAW DOGS.

starring: James Marsden, Kate Bosworth, Alexander Skarsgard, James Woods, Dominic Purcell, Rhys Coiro, Willa Holland

written and directed by: Rod Lurie

MPAA: Rated R for strong brutal violence including a sexual attack, menace, some sexual content, and pervasive language

There have been many artistic reactions to Hurricane Katrina, but the strangest one so far belongs to writer/director Rod Lurie, who apparently thought, “Sweet! Now I have a frame for my Straw Dogs remake!” Lurie, the filmmaker behind such above-average, female-driven political thrillers as The Contender and Nothing But The Truth, has transplanted Sam Peckinpah’s notoriously unsettling 1971 Dustin Hoffman film from rural England to the podunk town of Blackwater in post-Katrina Mississippi. Posh Hollywood couple David (James Marsden), a screenwriter, and Amy (Kate Bosworth, in her strongest performance since Wonderland), a struggling TV actress and Blackwater native, have temporarily relocated there to oversee a restoration of her recently deceased father’s storm-damaged property while David works on a script.

For contracting the construction, David and Amy turn to Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard, golden-tan rather than pale, doing the same southern accent and awkward smile from when he pretended to be in the Fellowship of the Sun on True Blood), Amy’s high school boyfriend, and his redneck lackey buddies. They are all former high school football players who’ve grown into hell-raising townies, barreling around town in a giant red pickup truck and generally ruling the roost. The tension begins almost immediately. First of all, genteel David didn’t realize that Amy and roughneck Charlie had a past. It quickly becomes clear that Charlie still carries a torch for her, while his friends are content to just leer at her while she jogs. And the rest of the tension comes from David himself.

You see, David is one of the mostly hilariously exaggerated yuppie characters this side of Delia’s friends in Beetlejuice. Let’s start with his appearance: soft, curly, cherub-style hair, clean-shaven face, glasses, giant patronizing smile. Despite being in a scorching dirt-poor southern town, he swans around in pink dress shirts tucked into cuffed khakis, sockless in chic loafers, ostentatiously driving a vintage Jaguar through the unpaved streets. He asks for a light beer at the local dive bar. When asked about sports, he claims ignorance but does volunteer that he enjoys “watching Harvard-Yale.” He blasts classical music to drown out the southern rock of his contractors. He tries paying with a credit card wherever he goes, including an outdoor church social. And he speaks down to everyone, including his wife, whom he treats as a puzzled child.

Lurie plays this for too-easy culture shock material, with David obliviously traipsing through a community that views him with contempt and weary bemusement. The subject of masculinity is pivotal, with big-city David given a crash course in how “real men” live in this country. The tension continues to escalate, as Charlie and friends decide to start fucking with them with mean-spirited stunts. Amy pleads with David, knowing all too well what they are capable of, but is arrogantly dismissed. The scenario becomes even more volatile with the addition of the town’s high school football coach, Tom (James Woods, turned up to 11), a violent, red-faced drunk addicted in equal parts to alcohol and rage. Tom is convinced that Jeremy (Dominic Purcell, admirably refusing to go “full retard”), a sweet-natured developmentally disabled man rumored to have a history of inappropriate behavior toward teenage girls, has eyes for his flirty cheerleader daughter, Janice (Willa Holland), and will do whatever he deems necessary to protect her.

Straw Dogs mixes up quite a powder keg for itself, with deliberate provocations and unapologetic prejudices mingling like unstable chemicals. As it follows the original quite closely, this is not a film where you really root for anyone. One of the biggest misunderstandings about the 1971 film was that David was interpreted by many as the hero, a sane and educated man pushed past his breaking point by a pack of violent criminals. It came out at the same time as A Clockwork Orange and Dirty Harry, accidentally finding itself engulfed in a larger conversation about boundary-pushing screen violence reflecting the increasingly hectic Vietnam-era world that spawned it.

But for Sam Peckinpah, who directed the original, David was the villain. He is deliberately, yet subconsciously, provoking the violence. By the film’s bloody conclusion, he has been unmasked as his true self. Marsden seems to understand this, playing David as smug and quite unlikeable. We want to root for Amy, especially when David basically says she’s asking for it when she is sexually harassed by the contractors. But then Amy commits an act of extremely reckless sexual provocation which, while certainly not justifying what happens consequently, does play a large role in the escalation of this domestic war. And we certainly don’t root for the good ol’ boy terrorists. Poor Jeremy is the only character who emerges looking sympathetic, and even he is questionable given the suggestions of pedophilia.

Straw Dogs is a technically competent remake, with Lurie giving the audience a full hour of exposition and character development before launching the punishing second half. It is tense, suspenseful, and psychologically complex. But why? Why bother with a remake of Straw Dogs? Nothing about the story seems especially topical or relevant to a modern setting. The original was released when there were still envelopes to be pushed; there is nothing remarkable about this version. Furthermore, Lurie’s remake follows the original closely enough to seem outdated. It traffics shamelessly in southern caricatures, superficial discussions of masculinity and female sexuality, and most egregiously, the Of Mice and Men “retarded outcast” character of Jeremy, which is just cringey to see in a contemporary film. So, again, I just have to ask: why bother?

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Christopher Rogers September 16, 2011 at 6:16 pm

Sounds like a real waste of film footage. Why couldn’t someone have talked Rod Lurie out of doing this? Sad.

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