STRAW DOGS (2011 Version): When Bloodlust Gets Pedantic And Pretentious

Whether you accept them or hate them, remakes are an unavoidable part of the modern Hollywood film landscape.  The best a filmgoer can hope for is that the people involved in helming a remake distill the essential concept of the film they are remaking, bring a fresh perspective or interesting twist to the storytelling and invest all their creative and financial resources into making a film that succeeds on its own terms.

The people who made the 2011 version of Straw Dogs did none of the above.  It’s a lazy, cynical and cowardly piece of hackwork that attempts to trade on the reputation and shock quality of the original while softening its tougher, confrontational edges down for a post-political correctness world.  The end result represents the worst of the modern remake trend.

The one major change in the plotline of the new Straw Dogs is a change in locale from rural England to rural Louisiana.  Otherwise, it’s stunning similar in plot and story progression to its model, with only the limpest cosmetic changes made: David Sumner (James Marsden) is a screenwriter who decides to tackle his latest script via a working vacation in the hometown of his actress wife, Amy (Kate Bosworth).  As in the previous film, David tries to ingratiate himself with the locals by hiring a group of them to do some remodeling at their home – a group that includes Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard), Amy’s still-smoldering old flame.

(*spoilers ahead*)

What follows is the same exact progression, plot point for plot point, that occurred in the original film.  David backs down to the ever-more-aggressive townies, Amy is ultimately raped by Charlie and a tragic incident involving  a much-reviled manchild local named Niles (Dominic Purcell) leads to a do-or-die siege finale between David and the townies at his homestead.

The end result has problems at all levels.  On the surface level, Straw Dogs is terribly miscast.  Marsden, a former action hero in the X-Men films, is far too buff to pass as a meek pacifist.  Similarly, Bosworth lacks the brassiness and raw sex appeal that made Susan George so stunning in the original film.  On the villainous side, Skarsgard gives an impressively subtle performance as Charlie but is simply too model-handsome to pass as a genuine “man’s man”-type southerner.

The rest of the townies are fairly faceless with the exception of James Woods, who plays an ex-football coach who functions as the de facto patriarch of the roughnecks.  Your Humble Reviewer is a big fan of Woods, even in take-the-money-and-run work like The Specialist and The General’s Daughter, but he delivers what might be his worst-ever performance in this film.  He overacts rabidly from his first scene and doesn’t look or sound remotely southern (to make matters worse, he drops his cornpone accent so frequently you could build a drinking game around these missteps).  Purcell also gives a memorably goofy “full retard” performance as Niles.

However, the casting/performance issues are minor when one considers how badly Lurie has bungled the remake task.  During the pre-release publicity, he talked a big game about bringing a more humane vision to contrast Peckinpah’s dark view of humanity but his work here doesn’t show it.  For starters, Lurie’s remake of Straw Dogs repeats at least 3/4’s of the scenes from its model, right down to specific bits of dialogue.  It’s hard to bring a new feel to a vintage piece of material when you recycle it so slavishly.

To make matters worse, the new elements he does add to the storyline are both clumsy and hateful.  For example, Lurie has an alarming fondness for beating the audience over the head with subtext.  He makes a point of having David explain why he is writing a script about the siege of Stalingrad to set up the “sometimes, you’ve got to stand up” motivation during the finale.  There’s also a scene where David explains to Amy (and thus, the audience) what the phrase “straw dogs” means.  A confident filmmaker can illustrate such concepts through action and characterization but Lurie just takes breaks from the plot to pedantically explain such things through his hero.

And speaking of awkward symbolism, Lurie basically extends a middle finger to the flyover states with his portrait of small town life.  To begin with, the town the film takes place in is named Blackwater – the same name as the private security force that committed war crimes during the Iraq War.  The fascistic connotations of that name are further underlined during an unintentionally hilarious church service sequence where a Reverend praying for the high school football team’s victory in a bloodthirsty, fire-and-brimstone way as the congregation hoots with approval.  This is followed with a football game scene where the crowd carries on like they’re at a Nuremberg rally while effigies burn KKK-style near the parking lot.  As artful as it is subtle, Mr. Lurie.

In contrast, Lurie is totally uncomfortable with the female element of the storyline.  Knowing how the original film riled feminists, Lurie tries to counteract the potential for such criticism in his remake by awkwardly inserting bits where Amy is presented as an independent woman: when David tells her she shouldn’t dress in skimpy clothes if she doesn’t want to be ogled, she gives him a badly written lecture about his sexist attitudes before marching off to defiantly flash the townies.  In the original film, the flashing moment was disturbing, here it’s presented as a bawdy gag/declaration of independence on the part of Amy.  Moments like this make you question whether Lurie understood the film he was remaking at all.

However, Lurie’s biggest bungle might be the film’s pivotal rape scene. The physical choreography is virtually identical but he removes any element of ambiguity, showing once again how uncomfortable he is with the darker angles of the film he is remaking.  He also makes his most hilarious misstep here in terms of symbolism when he intercuts the rapist’s orgasm with a scene of David shooting down a deer in the forest.  The unintentional hilarity is heightened by a melodramatic blast of music on the soundtrack from composer Larry Groupe, whose clichéd score piles on the bombast in a tin-eared way throughout the film.

By the time the film reaches its revenge movie finale, it’s running on fumes – and the result lacks the technical finesse and emotional complexity of the original film.  Though Peckinpah showed the cathartic allure of violence, he was careful to let the audience know that what was happening was tragic – and that the aftermath left David as a madman, not a hero.  The reverse is presented in Lurie’s confused, pretentious remake: here, David is a brave soul who sticks up for what is right as he kills off an oh-so-deserving (and one-dimensional) gang of evil hicks, who all deserve to die because they are fascists anyway.  The end result glorifies the character of David – and his violence – in a way that Peckinpah would have found disgusting and hypocritical.

Simply put, Lurie has made his 2011 version of Straw Dogs into the dumb, crassly manipulative revenge programmer that Peckinpah was accused of making back in 1971 – and to make things worse, Lurie’s film is shameless in its pandering and intellectually dishonest where Peckinpah’s film was confrontational and gutsy.  It’s easily the worst film Your Humble Reviewer saw in a theater during 2011.

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