(by Dustin Putman
"Straw Dogs" is credited as being based on both the novel "The Siege of Trencher's Farm" by Gordon Williams and the earlier motion picture screenplay by David Zelag Goodman and Sam Peckinpah. In actuality, it's solely adapted from the latter, the book playing no part in the finished product of this unimaginative remake of the original 1971 film. As written and directed by Rod Lurie (2001's "The Last Castle"), it is a skillfully made potboiler that plot point for plot point, beat for beat, occasionally shot for shot is nevertheless the same movie as the one Peckinpah made forty years ago. Indeed, from comments on religion, socioeconomic alienation, blurred gender roles and the moldy, hypocritical divide between feminism and masculinity, this isn't just some vacant-headed exploitation flick, but a film loaded with thematic subtext and nuance. Unfortunately, all of this is merely a repeat of what was done before, Lurie bringing no fresh ideas, style, or point-of-view to the material. The best remakes are the ones that take heed of what made their predecessor work so well while having the courage to put some kind of new spin on it. With "Straw Dogs," Lurie is so faithful to the past movie that he practically cancels this one out. There is simply no point to its existence. Article continues below
Burgeoning screenwriter David Sumner (James Marsden) is looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of L.A. so that he can concentrate on his latest project, a film about the 1943 battle of Stalingrad. He and actress wife Amy (Kate Bosworth) opt for an extended vacation in her backwater hometown of Blackwater, Mississippi, where they intend to stay at her late family's secluded lakeside home. Amy reunites with the locals and is reminded of why she should never have returned, while David hires some acquaintances from her past, led by her part-charming, part-skeevy high school flame Charlie (Alexander Skarsgård), to fix the damaged barn roof on their property. David's big-city ways don't exactly mesh with the small-town mindframe around him, but he is determined to make the best of it even when he's met with a whole lot of passive-aggressive attitude. Tensions mount from there—between David and Amy, between the couple and Charlie's gang—until the killing of their cat strikes a warning bell of the danger they are likely headed for if they stay.
For anyone who is intimately familiar with Sam Peckinpah's "Straw Dogs," this redux will feel like deja vu. For anyone who isn't, now is as good of a time as any to bypass this literal repeat offender and seek out the classic responsible for this one's very being. The few changes are largely cosmetic. Instead of England, the setting is the American Deep South. Instead of being a mathematician, David is a Hollywood writer. One key centerpiece involving a heinous, intrusive, weirdly seductive rape is softened here and altered to be singularly despicable rather than also subversively erotic for both parties. An explanation of the title is described in forced detail, spelling out what was provocatively left between the lines in the earlier film. As for what's the same between the two pics, just about everything else. Director Rod Lurie and cinematographer Alik Sakharov steal shots and occurrences wholesale from Peckinpah, from the broken beer glass near the beginning, to the chess-playing/jump-roping bedroom scene, to the use of the chalkboard in David's study, to every last method of murder and mayhem that rears its head during the climax. Suffice it to say, when a metal bear trap shows up in the second act, the viewer can rest assured it won't just be hanging idly on the wall by the end of the third.
What is interesting about the film—and what was interesting about the 1971 version, too—is that the narrative flies in the face of what could have easily become a run-of-the-mill thriller about urban dwellers terrorized by psychotic country bumpkins. Things aren't as black and white in this particular world, and ultimately no one is innocent of what they are driven to do by the grisly third act, a sort of poker-faced, blood-strewn take on "Home Alone." Charlie and his guys put on smiling faces and insist on calling David "Mr. Sumner"—in this instance, used to belittle rather than show respect—as they make a fool out of him any way they can. Though they'd never admit it, they're just as threatened by him, a successful professional with progressive, left-leaning beliefs, as he is of them. As for David, he is urged over and over to "be a man," as if the only way to show off his machismo is to beat somebody up, or worse. As it turns out, the fateful final confrontation has little to do with David and Amy—they are initially just bystanders when they attempt to protect the mentally-challenged Jeremy (Dominic Purcell) from a fiery town witch hunt—but when pushed to the edge of his own morality, David finally gives into his animalistic side as he rallies to protect what is his. Even if he technically wins the battle, he's still a loser, just one more victim symbolic of the narrow-minded, antiquated, poisonous corruption that still exists in modern-day society.
"Straw Dogs" culminates in menace and fatalities, but there is no joy in the acts anyone commits and, thus, no catharsis. It's a bleak finale, as it should be, but one that doesn't earn its effectiveness. The fact is, this movie borrows from the past film with such abandon that it neither earns nor deserves the credit. Sure, it's thoughtful and rather brave in the places it goes, but there was a movie four decades ago that did the same thing and was ahead of its time by leaps and bounds. As the prickly David and Amy, James Marsden (2011's "Hop") and Kate Bosworth (2008's "21") are solid heirs in taking over the roles previously and memorably performed by Dustin Hoffman and Susan George. Disbelief must be suspended as things become ever more precarious and the two of them still stick around despite not having a moment of peace since they arrived in town. That goes with the genre territory. Meanwhile, Alexander Skarsgård (2001's "Zoolander") plays the antagonistic Charlie as a smoldering jackass with a trace of a conscience. "Straw Dogs" is proficient from the get-go, but again, without bothering to take any chances what purpose does the film serve as a whole? Watching it is like gazing upon a plagiarized essay; no matter how good its content might be, it doesn't take away the knowledge that it was just copied over from someone else's paper.