STRAW DOGS, 2011
Stars: James Marsden, Kate Bosworth, Alexander Skarsgård, Dominic Purcell, James Woods, Willa Holland, Laz Alonso, Walton Goggins
L.A. screenwriter David Sumner (Marsden) relocates with his wife Amy (Bosworth) to her hometown in the deep South. There, while tensions build between them, a brewing conflict with locals becomes a threat to them both.
The good thing about a remake is a modern version of an older film, whether we like it or not, is easier to introduce to a new audience than trying to get them to sit through the original. For an important film, or a film dealing with important themes, that is not a small gain.
The bad thing about them is that they're frequently pointless, offering little more than a better technical rendition of what has come before with nothing new to add to it. Rod Lurie's remake of "Straw Dogs" is somewhere in between those two poles.
In the new version of Sam Peckinpah's classic, sleepy Wales has been replaced with sleepy Blackwater, Mississippi where residents do three things: hunt, drink, and watch high school football. Into this God fearing, gun totting atmosphere comes successful screenwriter David (James Marsden), you're typical liberal Hollywood type who does care for guns or God and is far more interested in chess and Beethoven than football and Lynerd Skynerd. He and his actress wife (Kate Bosworth) have returned to her old homestead for peace and quiet. Unfortunately a lot of Southern resentment and an old boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgard) are what's waiting and soon everyone is re-evaluating what exactly it is they know about themselves.
The original "Straw Dogs" was a meditation on the glorification of violence in cinema by one of its masters, using pure savagery to focus audiences on the reality of their desire to see a bad guy get what's coming to them. In the wake of "Hostel" and the "Saw" franchise where loving depictions of torture has become entertainment, a look into the psychic rewards of violence on those who perpetrate it – no matter how justified it may be – is particularly trenchant.
Understanding this, and how well the original covered this territory, writer-director Rod Lurie ("The Contender") has hewn pretty close to the first version with little deviation in the plot. Even the final climactic siege of the Sumner household is played out beat for beat nearly the same as the original.
Which allows all of those original themes to be brought to the surface in the complex way Peckinpah did. Though outwardly peaceful, several of the residents of Blackwater gradually become more and more contemptful of David, pushing him and Amy for a reaction. Rather than the typical Hollywood reaction, Amy herself begins to have contempt for David and his refusal to make a stand as well, pushing him to change his most deeply held beliefs. It doesn't help matters any that David and Amy are newlyweds and are only just beginning to discover they don't really know each other that well.
Things come to a head when some of the boys take David out hunting, leaving Amy at the house alone. While Peckinpah approached this sort of thing with his typical vivid, scathing violence, Lurie makes one of his few major departures choosing to focus on the psychological realities of what is happening and characters making momentary decisions they immediately regret.
And he has a great deal of support from his cast. As unhelpful as it is to follow Peckinpah, Marsden has the unenviable job of stepping into a young Dustin Hoffman's shoes. Though not as good a fit for the idea, Marsden makes David his own and believably switches back and forth between being a jerk and a victim. It's a thin line to walk and he does it well. It helps that he has a fine counterpart in Skarsgard, and most of the films best scenes involve the quiet tension building between the two. Skarsgard's Charlie gets most of the new interpretation as well, turning him into a slightly more complicated character who is counter intuitively more of a villain.
But the reality is there's just not enough different here to really make it worth the time of anyone familiar with the original "Straw Dogs." It does bring up things that are still worth talking about but for those who've never seen the first version the films themes are likely to be as misinterpreted as the originals were. It's not a waste by any stretch, the performances are too good and it's important ground that needs to be covered, but it can't overcome the specter of the original.
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