Mark Reviews Movies

Straw Dogs (2011)


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Rod Lurie

Cast: James Marsden, Kate Bosworth, Alexander Skarsgård, James Woods, Dominic Purcell, Rhys Coiro, Billy Lush, Laz Alonso, Willa Holland, Walton Goggins

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

Running Time: 1:50

Release Date: 9/16/11

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Review by Mark Dujsik | September 15, 2011

Writer/director Rod Lurie's remake of Straw Dogs gives the material a more literal interpretation, which is probably the last thing it needs. For what is there to the story except the concept that even a mild-mannered and principled man, when pushed hard enough so many times to the point that his back is to the wall, will fight back, especially in defense of himself and the woman he loves?

Sam Peckinpah's 1971 original at least had some ambiguity, mostly (and notoriously) in regards to that man's relationship with his wife, who cannot tolerate her husband's nature. When she's eventually assaulted by the alternative, it makes her disgust for the man to whom she's married even stronger. Here, her arc, like everything else in the story, has been simplified, in this case to a damsel in need of rescuing from herself—whether it be a lesson in how to dress appropriately or when to stand back and let the men work out their issues with guns, fists, and a properly established Chekhov's bear trap (It's even hanging from the wall). If Peckinpah's movie was accused of misogyny in the portrayal of the character of the wife, then there's a much better argument to be made about how this version views its few female characters.

Lurie swaps the setting of a remote area of England for the Deep South of the United States, where it's a mortal sin to ignore football, hunting, or church services. David Sumner (James Marsden) commits another simply by his occupation: He's a Hollywood screenwriter.

His wife is Amy (Kate Bosworth, seemingly uncertain about her character), who's originally from around these parts and returning with her new husband to live in her parents' old house. It was David's idea, believing the quiet would help him write; Amy was figuring out the bus schedule out of town by her freshman year of high school. At least that's what Charlie (Alexander Skarsgård, towering over Marsden in an amusing visual gag) says, and he should know, as he and Amy dated during high school. The fact that people in town can't bring themselves to let the past be past is central to much of the conflict that arises later.

The garage of the house has been damaged in recent hurricane, and in his first attempt to make a good impression on his neighbors, David hires Charlie and his friends to repair the roof. It's David's fatal flaw that he thinks he'll be able to get along with those who hate him from the start. Instead, he continually gives them more reasons to assert their bias: He buys them a round of drinks but leaves saying that he (as opposed to them) has go back to making a living, skips out on the preacher's sermon, and dares to request that Charlie's friends ask before they enter his house and take his beer. In return, someone hangs the Sumner's cat in the wardrobe.

The major turning point of the story is still Charlie and one of his buddies (Rhys Coiro) raping Amy. Much of the controversy surrounding the first movie was aimed at this scene, ridiculously suggesting that it appeared Amy's character was enjoying the assault (stemming, one could only suppose, from the confusion that rape is somehow a sexual and not a violent act). Lurie eliminates the possibility of such an absurd reading—no one could call any of Amy's actions here as reciprocating Charlie's advances—and winds up overplaying the dreadful impact by cutting to Amy looking at pictures of herself as a child and intercutting the attack with David hunting a buck in a burned-out clearing of the woods, as if the point of lost innocence need be elaborated.

The bigger question brought on by the straightforwardness of the sequence is now in regards to its actual necessity to the story. Since it has no bearing on David's eventual rise to the moment (Amy never tells him), it is ultimately only a gratuitous plot device, meant to give us a solid reason to despise Charlie and his crew. Further, it produces additional conflict between Amy, who now wants to leave, and David, who now wants to stay so as not to appear any weaker in his bullies' minds than he already does.

With driving certainty, the antagonism comes to a head with a standoff between Charlie's good ol' boys and David. The reasoning is unimportant, but it means that he must resort to the same tactic of taking the law into his own hands while trying to prevent them from doing the same. The climax of Straw Dogs has visceral appeal (Lurie shortens the coda to a shot of fire in David's eyes—again, a bit on-the-nose) and not much else. No matter what one's opinion of the original might be, the remake certainly should make one appreciate it more.

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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