Although it lacks the grit of Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 original and has several problems that hurt the overall story, Straw Dogs is a tense thriller that uses a slow-burn pace to examine how far a good man can be pushed before he pushes back.
Based on Gordon Williams’ novel The Siege of Trencher’s Farm and on the screenplay by David Zelag Goodman and Peckinpah, the remake was directed by Rod Lurie (who also penned the updated screenplay) and stars 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, and Megan Adelle.
Trading rural England for Blackwater, Mississippi, the film follows married couple David (Marsden) and Amy (Bosworth) Sumner as they move to Amy’s hometown to live in her dead father’s home. Amy is a small-town girl made big thanks to a thriving career as a television actress and David is a writer working on a screenplay based on the Battle of Stalingrad during World War II.
It is instant culture shock for David from the second they arrive in town. A quick stop at the bar/diner serves as a way for David to meet the town locals including the town drunk/former football coach Tom Heddon (Woods), Amy’s high school boyfriend Charlie (Skarsgård), and his roofing crew Norman (Coiro), Chris (Lush), and Bic (Powell).
He also has a quick introduction to the town sheriff John Burke (Alonso), Jeremy Niles (Purcell) – who is mentally challenged and viewed as a threat to young girls, and Jeremy’s older brother and keeper Daniel Niles (Goggins, who is wasted in the film).
While at the bar, David agrees to hire Charlie and his crew to repair the roof of the barn on Amy’s father property, but starts to regret the decision when the crew shows up at the break of dawn the next day. David is further put in an uncomfortable position as the workers help themselves to things in his refrigerator and leer at Amy as she jogs by in a tight tank top and without a bra.
Amy wants David to press the issue, but he puts the blame on her for running around in an outfit that draws attention. His manhood is further put to question during a town event where Heddon goes after Jeremy for talking to his daughter Janice (Holland). Amy breaks up the fight but lashes out at David for not stepping in to do it for her. She lashes out harder at David after her cat is hung in their closet and David refuses to confront Charlie and his crew about the death.
Instead, David agrees to go hunting with Charlie and his crew thinking it will serve as a way to be an olive branch between him and the locals as well as a way to find out who might have killed the cat.
Unfortunately for Amy, the hunting trip is a ruse for Charlie and Norman to get Amy alone in the house. What follows is a rough rape scene between the trio that leaves Amy wanting to get out of the town, but unwilling to tell David (who is left in the woods and feels like he was the bunt of a practical joke) what happened.
The movie finally boils over towards the end where David, Amy and an injured Jeremy are trapped in their home as Charlie, his crew and Heddon attack the house to get Jeremy – who is responsible for an incident involving Janice at a football game.
David (who still doesn’t know about the rape) is finally forced to violence as he refuses to give Jeremy to the group (who will no doubt kill him) and willing to kill to keep himself and Amy safe.
The final moments of the film are a flurry of violence (some of it so over-the-top it takes all the tension out of the movie) with David using every household appliance (and a bear trap) at his disposal to take out the men.
Although the remake of Straw Dogs does manage some tension and suspense, it fails to have any real weight and moves at too slow a pace for most of the movie. When the action does start, it feels like overkill and almost comical (while trying to stay spoiler free some of the facial expressions cracked me up).
Marsden takes over the role from Dustin Hoffman, but falls short of what the talented actor did in the original film. Hoffman’s character was an intellectual who clashed with the locals due to being basically smarter than them.
Marsden’s character is dumbed down somewhat, but comes across as a jerk as he questions and even somewhat makes fun of the local’s way of life (in the small town high school football is the main focus) and beliefs (he walks out of a church service to take a nap in his car). This pompous attitude makes it harder to relate to the character and care about him surviving the encounter with Charlie and his crew.
Bosworth’s Amy isn’t much more likeable, and even seems to straddle a line between victim and the cause of the problem. On several occasions (such as her response to the guys leering at her as she jogs or after her cat is killed), she seems to instigate conflict/tension between Charlie and David.
She clearly doesn’t deserve what happens to her, and I liked how Lurie has her character involved in getting revenge on the men during the siege. David and Amy are the victims by the end of the movie, but it is hard to care about them after they have been so dull and annoying.
As a villain, Alexander Skarsgård’s Charlie seems more complex and almost a victim himself by the time the movie is finished. He is the high school football star who didn’t do anything big with his life, but is still a sort of star in the small town and in his small social circle.
As David puts it, he is a “Straw Dog” that has little to show for his life and is semi-forced into the situation he finds himself in toward the end of the film.
Without question, Charlie is deserving of what happens to him by the end of the film, but I thought it was interesting how Skarsgård (who seems a giant compared to the other actors) played the character.
Clearly the best actor in the film, Skarsgård is almost chameleon-like in the movie making Charlie the type of guy who will try to help stop Jeremy from getting hurt, but also capable of cruelty and violence if it looks like his position as head of the pack is in danger.
As director and screenwriter, Lurie does a good job with the film, but fails to connect all the pieces. It was a smart choice to move the story to the South and focus on the difference between cultures – even with a group of characters from the same country.
His story is updated, but kept the traditional theme of how far you can push a man until he pushes back. Unfortunately, it was hurt by casting (Bosworth and Marsden have zero chemistry), moving at too slow a pace, and story elements that never quite come together. There is also a clear lack of character development for many of the supporting characters in the film.
The DVD comes loaded with features that go into the making of the movie and why Lurie wanted to take on remaking a Peckinpah film.
Overall, Straw Dogs fails to live up the legacy of the original film or match its grit (despite how the film has aged since 1971). The movie does a good job of building tension from the very start, but the characters come across as dull and bland which hurts the suspense by the end.
Instead of feeling justified, the violence at the end feels forced and over done for the sake of giving the movie some kind of weight or deeper meaning.
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