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Taken on its own terms as a nasty tale of how a bunch of rough rednecks pester and brutalize a nice city couple until the latter summon up the grit to turn the tables on them, Straw Dogs amounts to a raw slab of red meat to tempt and probably satisfy the hoi polloi. But to anyone who’s seen Sam Peckinpah‘s provocative and unsettling 1971 original, Rod Lurie’s redo adds nothing and subtracts nuance and ambiguity from what was one of the more controversial films of an already tumultuous period. Screen Gems should be able to exploit the story’s violence and inherent blood-boiling elements to good immediate returns in wide release.
Moving the action from the West of England to America’s Deep South instantly produces the sought-after hotbed of conflict for a good-looking Hollywood screenwriter and his sexy blond actress wife when they roll into the aptly named Blackwater, Miss., in their cherry silver ’67 Jaguar XKE to take up extended residence while he writes a script about the siege of Stalingrad.
The writer, David (James Marsden), does wonders for his status with the local good ol’ boys by showing up at the local bar wearing a Harvard lacrosse t-shirt, while Amy (Kate Bosworth), who was born and bred in these parts, is instantly hit on by rangy former flame Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard), ringleader of the town yahoos, who doesn’t consider her married status as an excuse not to pick up where they left off years ago.
Aside from the changes in settings and professions (Dustin Hoffman played a mathematician in the original, while Susan George‘s wife was, well, a wife), Lurie has deviated little from the script by David Zelag Goodman and Peckinipah, itself based on a novel by Gordon Williams. Fundamentally, it’s a study of how far passivism can be pushed, a collision between an aggressive force and a more pliant one that can be roused to a defense only when survival is genuinely threatened. Especially because the central motivating incident is the rape of the wife, this is a story designed to stoke fires and awaken basic instincts in both the characters and the audience. But whereas Peckinpah managed not only to raise hackles but to get under the skin, Lurie manages only the former, which reduces the material to the level of sensation-mongering.
Settling into a lovely riverside farmhouse belonging to Amy’s family, the affable David tries to get down to work while Amy takes a break from her TV career, which makes her the envy of her old local girlfriends. Providing a major distraction, however, is the daily presence of Charlie and his boys, hired to fix up the dilapidated barn on the property. Chummy on the surface and mock-respectfully addressing David as “sir,” Charlie and his crew nonetheless play their little games to test the limits, blasting loud music, entering the house for beer whenever they feel like, knocking off early, hanging a pet cat in a closet and leering at Amy when she jogs around in scanties. When her husband warns her about the effect her appearance has on the horndogs, she reprovingly asks, “Are you saying I’m asking for this?”
Peckinpah’s film devoted a good deal more time to domestic scenes between the husband and wife, revealing ways in which they were not quite in synch and certain dissatisfactions on her part, nothing overtly spelled out but enough to quietly suggest she might have reason to recall her old boyfriend from time to time. This feeds into her reactions when her former beau rapes her, a sequence that set off a furor at the time for its intimations, not that she asked for it but that, once it was happening, she was not altogether unresponsive.
There’s little such ambiguity this time around when Charlie comes calling after the boys have deliberately lured David out on a hunting expedition to put his manhood to the test. “You’re a coward,” Amy accuses her husband in the aftermath. “No, I’m not,” he replies, before having to prove it by defending their house against an armed nocturnal assault by the liquored-up mob, joined now by the hot-headed local football coach (James Woods), whose wayward teenage daughter has been assaulted by the village idiot the couple is protecting.
Lurie has recycled the most memorably gruesome details of Peckinpah’s staging of the domestic battle-to-the-death, including the shotgun blast to the foot and the fearsome bear trap. But while the visceral impact of the improvised combat remains and will have the intended effect on viewers, most of whom will not have seen the original, the way the action has been rushed and amplified makes it seem less realistic, goosed up in an artificial movie way. The coach’s contribution to the melee, particularly as concerns his intervention with the local sheriff (practically the only black character on view), is especially unconvincing. All told, Lurie tries way too hard to outdo Peckinpah with his siege and, not surprisingly, falls way short.
Marsden is entirely affable as a well-intentioned guy whose wife has perhaps not given him fair warning for what he may be in for on her home turf. For the film to have had any dimension other than as a home invasion shocker, however, Bosworth’s Kate would have needed layers of subtext; until she questions his bravery, there’s no indication she finds him anything less than a good guy and husband, and there are no questions raised about the state of their marriage, any lingering feelings she might have for Charlie and so forth. The central relationship has no depth and Bosworth comes off as rather hard, certainly compared to Susan George in the original, who was wonderfully changeable of mood and temperature; indeed, she was the heart of the film, notwithstanding Hoffman’s admirable summoning of hitherto untested courage.
Towering over his costars, TV hearththrob Skarsgard makes for a formidable antagonist, while Woods has no trouble conjuring up the small town’s reigning whackjob. Louisiana locations are suitably atmospheric, although the mismatching of fog and clear skies during David’s disorienting hunting expedition is sloppy in the extreme.
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