Straw Dogs is a remake of Sam Peckinpah’s scandalous 1971 what happens when a man is pushed too far? rabble-rouser, which starred Dustin Hoffman as a gawky, nerdish mathematician, unaccountably married to an English sexpot with smeary lips and a taunting attitude. Hoffman’s character spends most of the film getting humiliated, talked down to, and roughed up, but he’s compelled to find his manhood when circumstances force him to fend off the rural British goons who want to break into his home and do him damage. ”This is my house,” he says, a geek drawing the line in the sand. Then the geek goes to work defending himself with guns, nails, pots of boiling water, and (famously) a bear trap.
Rod Lurie, who wrote and directed the new Straw Dogs, transplants the story from the English countryside to a small town in the Deep South, and the characters are now a Hollywood screenwriter, David Sumner (James Marsden), and his hottie actress wife, Amy (Kate Bosworth). Apart from that, though, the film sticks fairly close to Peckinpah’s lurchingly obsessive, glorified-exploitation-film story line. The new Straw Dogs is a sketchy oddball of a movie. What’s missing is the sensuality and danger that gave the original its lurid, screw-tightening kick.
That’s no surprise, really. Sam Peckinpah was a bad boy — drawn, like an animal to raw flesh, to the exploration of our darkest impulses. Years before the phrase ”politically correct” was invented, Straw Dogs, like its cinematic cousin A Clockwork Orange (also released in 1971), was one of the most politically incorrect movies ever made. It featured a rape scene that dared to be not just nasty but erotic — Susan George, as the wife forcibly ”seduced” by a scowling macho carpenter, got turned on by being slapped, and that was a hell of a thing to watch at the dawn of the feminist era. Ultimately, the Hoffman character becomes as brutal as his adversaries, which inspired Pauline Kael, in a famous line of criticism, to brand Straw Dogs ”a fascist work of art.” I never agreed with that sentiment. The movie was more like a Western pushed to the edge, and done in a gloomy, labored style that might be described as prestige grindhouse. Unfortunately, Rod Lurie, as a director, is anything but a bad boy. A former film critic born in Israel, he has mostly made earnest political parables (The Contender, Nothing but the Truth), and the style he brings to Straw Dogs is closer to middlebrow megaplex.
It’s easy enough to say that James Marsden is no Dustin Hoffman, but in this role, he’s so squishy and smiley and soft he’s like a candy-apple James Franco. Marsden’s David, an ”enlightened” male wimp in laceless designer sneakers and a Harvard lacrosse T-shirt, is the kind of guy who plays classical music as he researches his screenplay for an awards-bait movie about the Battle of Stalingrad, then unwinds by engaging his wife in late-night chess matches. The two have relocated, temporarily, back to her hometown following the death of her father, and the moment they walk into the local bar (which is so macho it doesn’t even serve Bud Light!), David is supposed to be the effete yuppie out of water. He’s set up in contrast to Amy’s old flame, Charlie, a hunky Southern-fried Christian redneck played with a deadpan smile-slash-leer by Alexander Skarsgård of True Blood.
Charlie and his carpenter pals, who get hired to reroof the couple’s adjoining barn, come on all friendly-like, but we can see that they’re wolves. Is Amy, the hometown girl, still one of their kind deep down? When you remake a movie like Straw Dogs and preserve its basic hothouse outline but redo it cautiously, with the sexual politics vetted and tamed, you get a movie, I’m afraid, that’s a little off its rocker. At least Marsden’s character makes sense; he’s a guy fatally out of touch with his inner bruiser. But Bosworth has the unenviable task of playing a self-possessed, upbeat contemporary chick with a dark underside that (given our era) is never too dark. When she suddenly flashes Charlie and his pals, she’s supposed to be straying into forbidden waters, but it just looks like she’s gone temporarily nuts. She’s a walking patchwork: a postfeminist sexpot victim avenger.
The last half hour, in which Marsden fends off the attackers from inside his house, is like a slasher movie with pretensions, and on that level, Lurie does an okay job. He leaves in the bear trap and updates it in a very satisfying way. Straw Dogs keeps you watching, but on a primal level I never truly bought the movie’s violence, and that’s where Peckinpah ruled: He had violence in his filmmaking blood, which is why he could make it sting. The original Straw Dogs, at least to me, isn’t close to being one of Peckinpah’s masterpieces, but it’s a movie that the people who first saw it still remember 40 years later. I doubt that anyone will remember the new one by next month. C+
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