Thursday, December 22, 2011

DVD Review: Straw Dogs

Straw Dogs *** ½
Directed by: Rod Lurie.
Written by: Rod Lurie based on the screenplay and book.
Starring: James Marsden (David Sumner), Kate Bosworth (Amy Sumner), Alexander Skarsgård (Charlie), James Woods (Tom Heddon), Dominic Purcell (Jeremy Niles), Rhys Coiro (Norman), Billy Lush (Chris), Laz Alonso (John Burke), Willa Holland (Janice Heddon), Walton Goggins (Daniel Niles), Anson Mount (Coach Milkens), Drew Powell (Bic).

Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971) is one of his best films. Most of Peckinpah’s films examine violence and masculinity, and that film is no exception. It has an intellectual (Dustin Hoffman) heading to the English countryside with his new wife (Susan George) who is from the area. Right away, Hoffman rubs the locals – in particular George’s ex-boyfriend and roughneck friends – the wrong way, and eventually, he’ll have to stand up and “be a man” to defend his home and his wife. It is one of the most disturbingly violent movies of the 1970s. The surprising thing about Rod Lurie’s remake is how closely he adheres to Peckinpah’s original. The film is still disturbing and violent. He makes some changes – setting in the Southern USA instead of England and turning the intellectual into a screenwriter, but other than that, the two films are very similar – and similarly effective. The difference is – and I think this is key – is that Lurie feels more sympathy with his “hero” than Peckinpah did (hence making him a screenwriter). Both movies have the power to shock and disturb.

This new version casts James Marsden as David Sumner, the screenwriter, who is coming back to his new wife Amy’s (Kate Bosworth) childhood home. Both her parents are dead, and the area was recently hit by a hurricane, leaving the barn in need of a new roof. David thinks that this peaceful hamlet will be the perfect place for him to be able to get some peace and quiet – and to finish the screenplay on Stalingrad he’s been working on. Amy, an actress, is now out of work because the TV show she and David worked on has been cancelled – plus she’s excited to go back home. They should have stayed away.

They are in town for just a few minutes, eating at the local burger joint when Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard) comes over to talk to them. Simply by the way he looks at Amy, and calls her “Amycakes”, it’s clear these two have a romantic past – something David confirms when he sees a picture of the two of them on the wall. There is something off putting about Charlie, but David ignores it. When Charlie mentions that he and “his crew” were among the people who placed a bid on fixing the barn, David hires him on the spot. This already uneasy scene becomes downright nasty when “Coach” Tom Heddon (James Woods), who was once the high school football coach, and is now little more than the town drunk, throws a fit when the bartender tries to cut him off. Welcome to Small Town USA! The story follows the original pretty closely – with Charlie and his crew making thinly veiled threats, disguised as “friendly, down home country advice” to David, who continues to try and make excuses for them and avoid conflict, while Amy becomes convinced they’re up to something much more sinister.

There are two key sequences in both versions of Straw Dogs – the disturbing rape scene in the middle of the film, and the violent home invasion climax. This time, Lurie makes the rape sequence a little less ambigious as Peckinpah did. I remember having an argument with a friend of mine after we first saw Straw Dogs where I thought the scene between the wife and her ex-boyfriend constituted rape, and he did not. This time, it’s more definitively rape – as Amy tries to push Charlie away multiple times, and says “No” repeatedly. And yet, Lurie lets at least a little ambiguity sneak in, as it certainly does appear that part way through the rape that Amy stops fighting it – and her body language does not make it clear if she simply gives up, or like my friend thought of Susan George in the original, she welcomes it. There is no ambiguity about what comes after Charlie is done with her however.

The violent home invasion that ends the movie is also handled well. Like the original, it involves Charlie and his friends outside the Sumner’s house trying to get in, and David having to fight them off. They have guns, David does not. But he does have smarts. The disturbingly violent climax involves hot oil, nail guns and a bear trap – just like the original. This is the sequence where David has to “man up” as it were, which Charlie and his friends think he is incapable of. But David is tougher than he looks.

As I mentioned off the top of this review, I think the difference between Lurie’s movie and Peckinpah’s is not in terms of story – they essentially tell the same one – but in terms of how David is portrayed. I think Peckinpah thought David was a weakling and a wimp, and like Charlie and his friends, doesn’t really respect him until he finally stands up for himself at the end. I think Lurie feels the opposite – that David is trying to handle things like an adult, and in doing what he does at the end of the movie, he loses something of himself. The finale isn’t a triumph this time.

I also have to mention the political bent to the film this time around; that I think was absent before. Lurie is a well known “Hollywood Liberal”, who previous films include The Contender, about a woman Vice Presidential candidate having to jump through hoops to be confirmed by Congress, and the underrated Nothing But the Truth, about a journalist who refuses to reveal her sources. By setting Straw Dogs in the heart of “Red State” America, and making his “hero” a definitive “Blue State” American, Lurie is underlining the deep divide in America right now. There is no room for compromise – you either with us or against us. I think that had Straw Dogs been more successful when it came out (it sadly died a quick death at the box office), it would have become a favorite target of Fox News – and not without reason. It certainly doesn’t paint Red State America as a place you’d want to visit.

Overall, I was fascinated by Straw Dogs, and drawn into its tangled moral web, just like I was with Peckinpah’s original. No, it doesn’t quite pack the same punch as Peckinpah’s did – not only did he get there first, but he is also a better director than Lurie, and as good as Marsden and Bosworth are in this film (and they both surprised me by just how good they were), they aren’t at the same level of Hoffman and George. Yet, it’s still a great little film in its own right – and the rare remake that I think is actually enhanced, and not diminished, by knowing the original film.

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