Director Sam Peckinpah was, almost inarguably, capable of creating cinematic masterpieces. Was his 1971 film Straw Dogs
one of them? It depends upon who you ask, though virtually anyone asked would acknowledge it as a provocative yet lesser cinematic accomplishment for Peckinpah.
It's no secret that Hollywood these days has gotten a bit lazy, with remakes ruling the major studios and the box-office receipts. So, it shouldn't come as a huge surprise that Peckinpah's controversial yet successful film would eventually come back even bigger and even badder. The weird thing, though, is that Rod Lurie's remake starring James Marsden and Kate Bosworth in the roles made famous by Dustin Hoffman and Susan George, isn't really bigger or badder or, for that matter, particularly distinguishable from the original with the exception of being transplanted from England to Mississippi and with actors who don't pack near the dramatic punch of either Hoffman or George.
David (Marsden) is a Hollywood screenwriter who moves to the small town of Blackwater with his actress wife Amy (Bosworth), who grew up as the widely popular homecoming queen/cheerleader type. The happy couple acquires a house damaged by Hurricane Katrina and scheduled for a rehab led by none other than Amy's high school boyfriend, Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard). If you remember the original, and virtually any fan of cinema does, you know that Straw Dogs
becomes an increasingly tension and violence filled battle between Blackwater's predators in waiting and this couple, especially David, a pretty boy intellectual who becomes an increasingly menacing presence in order to protect his wife and his home.
Peckinpah's original film was rated X and was actually banned in England for quite some time. What felt shocking and even violating in 1971 now exists in a world where a torture porn series like Saw
can become a cinematic series and where the internet makes such violent images readily available. Straw Dogs
is definitely still disturbing, but not particularly shocking anymore.
There's no question that Marsden, one of Hollywood's most likable young actors, isn't quite up to par with the Oscar winning Dustin Hoffman. While there are similarities between the two in terms of physical presence and acting style, Hoffman had already tackled tremendously dramatic projects by the time he appeared in Straw Dogs.
The closest Marsden has come has been in the ultra indie The 24th Day,
which also happens to be one of his better performances. Marsden doesn't quite nail Hoffman's dramatic heights, but his transformation from victim to defender is still mesmerizing to watch. This is a bold choice by Marsden, and while it's unlikely to be knocking on Oscar's door it's still a better than expected performance.
Director Rod Lurie tries to turn Bosworth's Amy into a bit of a progressive woman, perhaps an attempt to heighten the dramatics between she and the world in which she grew up. Unlike Peckinpah, Lurie manages to create an emotional bond between the audience and his lead characters. It's not that we hated Peckinpah's David and Amy, but there was a greater distance between performer and audience. In this version of Straw Dogs,
we end up caring about these characters early on and understanding their relationship. Likewise, even though Blackwater feels creepy from point one it's hard not to argue that much of that comes from built in biases. Charlie and his cronies, especially the local and very vile high school football coach (James Woods), are initially adoring and respectful of Amy and her husband. It is only when they increasingly sense his weakness that their strength grows in leaps and bounds as they begin to test his limits and, as well, that of Amy.
However, you can only push a man so far until he eventually pushes back.
The original Straw Dogs
was perhaps most notorious for its double rape scene, a scene of repulsive yet unforgettable power emotionally and physically. The scene, at least a variation of the scene, remains in this film though it's arguably more stylized than emotionally driven. The original scene was jarring because you felt it, perhaps even experienced it. In this film, this scene and the scenes that follow are just as reprehensible yet, somehow, they feel less primal and Hollywood.
While Marsden and Bosworth are fine in the lead roles, the film is really carried by Alexander Skarsgard's incredibly disturbing turn as Charlie, a young man who is obviously still adoring of Amy yet also obviously influenced by the societal forces that surround him. Similarly, as one of those forces, James Woods is downright frightening as the local high school coach tasked with growing the town's young men.
That explains a lot.
doesn't live up to Peckinpah's original, yet the film will still likely satisfy most fans of the original. Hollywood's handprints are all over this film, creating a more polished and less primal action thriller that may prove more successful for a younger audience that hasn't experienced Peckinpah's far more unforgettable original.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic