A film review by Craig J. Koban September 28, 2011


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"

The 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 issues. 

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 goons. 



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 idiot.  

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 astounding. 

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. 

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