Review: Straw Dogs (2011)


Straw Dogs (2011)

Directed by: Rod Lurie | 110 minutes | thriller | Actors: James Marsden, Kate Bosworth, Alexander Skarsgård, James Woods, Dominic Purcell, Rhys Coiro, Billy Lush, Laz Alonso, Willa Holland, Walton Goggins, Anson Mount, Drew Powell, Kristen Shaw, Megan Adelle, Jessica Dockrey, Randall Newsome, Tim J. Smith, Richard Folmer, Wanetah Walmsley, Clyde Heun, Rod Lurie, Kelly Holleman, Grayson Capps, Tommy MacLuckie, Josh Kerin, John Milham, Kristin Kelly

Director Rod Lurie (‘The Contender’) is a professional, but what he now also saw in making a remake of Sam Peckinpah’s thriller of the same name, does not quite come out. With that, this film cannot be in the shadow of the cult classic from 1971.

James Marsden plays the wimpy David Sumner, a Hollywood screenwriter, who struggles with his latest script about the Battle of Stalingrad during World War II. He and his wife Amy (Kate Bosworth) go to her hometown in Mississippi called Blackwater. Her father died shortly before and David and Amy move into her parental home. He soon clashes with the locals, including Amy’s ex-boyfriend Charlie Venner (Alexander Skarsgård) and his group of friends. Venner is hired to repair the barn of the house. From minor bullying and mutual irritation, things quickly go from bad to worse. Parallel to the primary storyline is the story of Jeremy (Dominic Purcell), a mildly mentally retarded man and cheerleader Janice (Willa Holland), who has a crush on him. Her father, football coach Tom – usually referred to as “Coach” (James Woods), especially sees Jeremy as a threat. The fact that Coach has a very short fuse and spends most of the film in a more or less inebriated state doesn’t exactly help either. Ultimately, these confrontations culminate in a true bloodbath.

Packinpah’s version of ‘Straw Dogs’ was highly controversial when it hit theaters. Several scenes were cut in the UK film rating, for example, and there was a lot of commentary about the extensive rape scene and the explicit violence. In comparison, this version barely caused a ripple. Could it be that the quality of the film is really mediocre? Or because violence in movies is now much more accepted? Or because the viewer and critic has become so dulled that we hardly shrug our shoulders when bear traps and nail guns are used for other purposes?

Those who watch ‘Straw Dogs’ without knowing the original version will see a quite effective thriller, which slowly but surely increases the tension and goes completely wild in the last part with a number of unsavory scenes and a lot of brutal violence. What is especially striking for those who do know the original version is that the versions are so incredibly similar. The plot is almost one-on-one. Admittedly, the scene has moved from Cornwall, England, to the deep South of the United States. The film is set in Mississippi, although the shots were made in the neighboring state of Louisiana, because of the tax climate there. For the states in the “Deep South” it is an unflattering portrayal. All stereotypes about “rednecks” are reviewed. Hollywood has a knack for making a caricature of the fairly poor states in the South and ‘Straw Dogs’ cannot escape such characterizations either. By portraying the residents as boozing, lustful, racist and dangerous lunatics, the makers not only do a portion of the American population a disservice, but perverse justification for the eruption of violence when David finally breaks down. This is a dubious position, because – while violence itself is not glorified – it does admit that violence can be a solution. The weakness of the story is that again and again David and Amy get the chance to just leave, or resolve the situation in some other way. Why do they keep visiting Charlie and his friends? Why do they go to church, to the punch and play event, to the football game? Why does David go hunting? The motivation is not always worked out convincingly. The threat is so obvious, especially as soon as bad things happen to the cat in their house, that that alone is reason enough to pack their bags and run away.

One of the film’s other problems is Marsden’s role. In the original it was the small, petite Dustin Hoffman (in a class of his own as an actor anyway) who let go of his inner demon. That transition and the contrast between the lower door and the perpetrator is one of the reasons Peckinpah’s film worked so well. Here is a lot less effective. Marsden is of average height at 1.78 meters (certainly compared to Skarsgård’s 1.93 meters) and he can trip over objects in the house and appear clumsy so many times, it doesn’t seem authentic. Let’s face it, we’re talking about Cyclops in the ‘X-Men’ movies here. That’s a role Hoffman would never have been offered if the films had been made in the 1970s. Marsden is simply not a brute physically. He may not have enough acting talent to handle the role, or he may have been cast incorrectly. Another change from Hoffman’s version of David Sumner is that the character is now a screenwriter rather than a mathematician. The intent is undoubtedly to draw comparisons between the brutal, months-long battle between the Soviet Union and the German Sixth Army in the ruins of Stalingrad. There is a valid argument to be made about the nature of violence and what primal instincts emerge in man when confronted with life and death. Given the brutality in which many tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians died, a comparison with the ‘siege’ of David and Amy’s house is not entirely out of the blue. Yet at the same time there is something grotesque about linking the horrors of the Second World War to a story like this.

Kate Bosworth is a nice replacement for Susan George, but is mainly used as “eye candy”. The camera follows her so closely, in tight tops, shorts or sweaty sportswear, that it almost becomes uncomfortable. In any case, it’s too much for Skarsgårds Charlie. The Swedish-born actor (son of Stellan) is a convincing Southerner with a ditto accent. Not only is he heavily muscled and towers above the rest of the cast, he is also the most convincing in terms of acting. From dreamily naive to menacing, Skarsgård dominates every scene he’s in. This makes him the most positive note in a disappointing and unnecessary remake.

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