A film review by Craig J. Koban September 28, 2011
2011, R, 109 mins.
2011, R, 109 mins.
James Marsden: David / Kate Bosworth: Amy / Alexander Skarsgard: Charlie / James Woods: Tom Heddon
Written and directed by Rod Lurie, based on the 1971 film and Gordon Williams' novel "The Siege at Trencher's Farm"
original STRAW DOGS from 1971, directed by Sam Peckinpah, was not only one
of the finest films of its decade, but also one of its most controversial.
At that point in his career, Peckinpah was no stranger for really
stirring things up in his films: THE WILD BUNCH more than proved this with
its scandalous graphic violence and carnage.
STRAW DOGS perhaps upset and disturbed more people in its
era, perhaps because there was a startling sense of immediacy and intimacy
with the sadism in its largely small and confined setting. The epic bloodletting of THE WILD BUNCH was set against a broad,
sun-drenched, and outdoor canvas of western iconography, whereas STRAW
DOGS was frighteningly more small scale and domestic.
The gunslingers of THE WILD BUNCH were essentially killers; the
ones in STRAW DOGS were seemingly ordinary, but with severe instability
The climax of STRAW DOGS –
one of the most fever-pitched and viscerally sustained sequences of the
movies – certainly drew outrage among critics and filmgoers of the early
70’s (it was also released around the same time as A CLOCKWORK ORANGE,
DIRTY HARRY, and THE FRENCH CONNECTION, which only added fuel to the
fire of how audiences negatively perceived violence in contemporary 70's cinema).
Yet, what truly set people off was its portrayal of its
relationship between men and women and sex in general.
The film contained not one, but two brutal rapes, with a
not-so-subtle indication that the victim, albeit fleetingly, appeared to
enjoy it. As a result,
Peckinpah was accused of glamorizing beastly sexual assault and
vigilantism, but the director had always come to his film’s defense by
stating that STRAW DOGS was more about exploring the darker underbelly of
how even weaklings can be prone to savagery when provoked too much.
This, of course, brings me to
the film’s remake, helmed under the auspicious hands of Rod Lurie (THE
CONTENDER, NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH, and THE LAST CASTLE) that has
thanklessly taking on the mantle of re-imagining one of the most notorious
trailblazing films of all-time. What’s
interesting here is that Lurie manages to remain remarkably faithful to
his Peckinpah antecedent (which, in turn, was based on the novel THE SIEGE
OF TRENCHER’S FARM by Gordon Williams).
Although there is absolutely no way that this new film could ever
build up to the intense crescendos of viewer outrage that typified the
original, the core theme of this newest entry is the same: It’s about
how meek mannered and pacifistic intellectuals that profess to admonish
confrontations and violence are reduced to salivating, teeth clenched, and
fist pumping brutes capable of indescribable acts of wanton cruelty when
pushed to their breaking points.
Forty years ago it was Dustin
Hoffman that portrayed David Summer, a nerdy, book wormish American
mathematician that took his young, British trophy wife, Amy (Susan George),
back home to Cornwall, during which time an old flame of her's,
Charlie (Del Henney) made life difficult for them all…until all hell
broke loose in the end. Hoffman’s
David spent a majority of the film as a smugly elitist man of culture and
education, but he also managed to have his very manhood stepped on
repeatedly by both Charlie and his wife.
Of course, the preppy and seemingly non-aggressive David was pushed
to his limits, and through a series of unfortunate events, went absolutely
ape shit in the end defending “his house” from Charlie and his drunken
Flash-forward forty years and
Lurie maintains almost all of the basic narrative elements of Peckinpah’s film, with some very minor, but notable tweaks.
Luire changes the new film’s setting away from the U.K. and back to the Gulf Coast of Mississippi while also reducing the age gap
between husband and wife to a few years (in the original, it was obvious
that the late thirty-something Hoffman was older than the early twenty-something
George). David in the
original, as mentioned, was a math scholar, but this go around he’s a
screenwriter that is working on a dream script about the WWII Battle of
Stalingrad. In terms of
similarities, though, David in both films considers himself as an
intellectual superior to his wife and all those around him, and his she
resents him for it. Charlie is still an old acquaintance of Amy's
that commits an act of vile cruelty on her, and David, when finally
compelled to, mans up and reduces himself to primal, baser killer
instincts to defend his wife’s honor, his home, and the local village
The casting of the film is
compelling. James Marsden -
an actor that, as far as appearances go, is certainly not as meager and
diminutive as Hoffman - plays David, but despite his handsome mug and well
built athletic veneer, he’s still just a preppy wimp in fancy designer
shoes, glasses, khakis, and polo shirts that likes classical music and
games of chess. Kate Bosworth
plays Amy, now a former TV actress that has resigned herself to a normal
life as David’s wife, which perhaps leads to her restlessness back home.
Like George’s embodiment of Amy, Bosworth here is a dangerously
flirtatious tease, although she is presented as a bit more cagey and
smart. One nitpick I do have with the new film occurs in a key scene
when she essentially disrobes in front of Charlie and his salivating group
of rednecks as a form of comeuppance against David’s accusations that
her lack of clothing while jogging sends the wrong message.
Hmmm…would an empowered woman engage in this type of stupid and
reckless behavior to temp those that she complains is objectifying her?
The best casting, though, is
with the role of Charlie, and this time we get TRUE BLOOD’s hunk de jour
Alexander Skarsgard, who plays his Deep Southern Christian redneck villain
with a disarming nice guy panache, which perhaps makes him even scarier
than his predecessor in the 1971 film.
Charlie is also more intriguingly three-dimensional this time as a
well-rendered baddie: he’s easy going and congenial, but steely eyed,
physically brooding, and menacing at his core.
He’s so calm-spoken and polite that you would never think twice
about him being an unspeakable sociopath.
I guess the power of Skarsgard’s work here makes it all the more
noticeable that his entourage are essentially just pathetic hillbilly
stereotypes. At least James
Woods shows up to compliment Skarsgard as the town’s vile and loose
cannoned alcoholic. He
appears briefly in the film in a key role, but his ferocity and vigor is
Like the first STRAW DOGS,
this one involves verbal cat and mouse games, two deplorable rapes, a bear
trap being used for unintended purposes, a hung
feline, and, yes, a final climax of stomach churning carnage.
Lurie, to his esteemed credit, cannot be criticized for softening
this material or going for a more audience placating PG-13ifying of the
original material. This
remake is exceedingly well made and performed and the final twenty-minute
showdown between David and his adversaries is almost as intensely
unrelenting as the original. As
I left the theatre I guess that I felt that the film was a finely
directed-unnecessary remake that I could defend on its technical merits.
However, in our age of SAW and
HOSTEL torture porn chic, could a new STRAW DOGS be even seen as an
indecently controversial button pusher anymore?
Peckinpah’s film was a potent punch to the guts of its filmgoers
and was an intrepid and daring trendsetter of its time.
You sensed him holding up a mirror to people and their perceived
notions of violence and eroticism in movies.
STRAW DOGS-redux is just not the appalling and unsavory wake up call to
the cinema that its forerunner was; it perhaps feels more at home with
sensationalism than with mind-screwing its viewers with its dicey ethical
haziness. I was taken in with
the polish and proficiency that Lurie brings to the film, but as far as
making me think, the new STRAW DOGS lacks an incendiary bite.