Though perhaps more studied than loved, Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 “Straw Dogs” was both a product of its tumultuous time and a film filled with provocative ideas, however upsetting and anachronistic those ideas may now seem. Though competently crafted, Rod Lurie’s wholly unnecessary 2011 remake is a film with few notions of its own, and representative of its time only in the commercial sense that home-invasion thrillers are now more prevalent at the multiplex. Auds unfamiliar with the original may be lured by the pic’s marketing as a standard-issue actioner; their expectations are likely to be frustrated without ever being challenged.
Purportedly deriving as much inspiration from Gordon Williams’ source novel as from Peckinpah’s film, this remake hews to the overall developments of the original film extremely faithfully. The most obvious changes are largely cosmetic — Corwall, England, is replaced by Blackwater, Mississippi; bagpipe music is replaced with zydeco; the order and manner of deaths in the final sequence is shuffled around somewhat; and nebbishy protag David (James Marsden) has gone from math professor to Hollywood scribe composing a screenplay about the siege of Stalingrad. (Lurie may have intended this as a sly rebuke to critic Pauline Kael, who famously called the original “a fascist work of art,” but without that metatextual reference point, it simply reads as foreshadowing applied with a trowel.)
None of these changes proves particularly detrimental. What is detrimental, however, are the more subtle modifications, which sand down the rougher edges of the original. The protagonists have become more likable and empowered, motivations have become more cut and dried, and references to underlying political schisms are downplayed. This may make things more philosophically palatable to contemporary auds, but “Straw Dogs” isn’t a film that was ever meant to be palatable. Absent Bloody Sam’s provocations and inimitable style, the film becomes merely an abrasive potboiler, still viscerally unpleasant but no longer meaningfully so.
Marsden is given a thankless task replacing Dustin Hoffman in the lead role, and though he only skims the depth Hoffman brought to the part, he puts in a credible performance all the same. Arriving in deep Dixie in his vintage Jaguar with actress wife and Blackwater native Amy (Kate Bosworth) at his side, he hopes to spend some time writing at Amy’s empty ancestral home. Yet boasting a Hollywood-by-Hyannis Port fashion sense and a goofy if prickly demeanor, David is rather ill suited for life in the rural South.
Playing the same fish-out-of-water themes in the original pic, it’s not long before David runs afoul of the natives in the local pub by trying to buy beer with a debit card and turning down the fried pickles. Most irked by the interloper’s arrival is Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard), an outwardly polite good-ol’-boy and Amy’s high school paramour. In a condescendingly friendly gesture, David hires Charlie and his gang of chuckleheaded cretins to repair a barn damaged by Hurricane Katrina, which they do in increasingly short shifts while blasting Southern rock and getting a bit too comfortable on David’s property.
Lingering sparks between Charlie and Amy are bubbling under all the while, and the yee-haws openly ogle her as she jogs braless around the property. Meanwhile, the town’s resident alcoholic and former football coach, Tom Hedden (James Woods), suspects a mentally challenged man with a shadowy past (Dominic Purcell) of getting too intimate with his flirtatious 15-year-old daughter (Willa Holland).
To his credit, Lurie is in no rush to bring these tensions to a head, but he never manages to lead them credibly from quiet unease to the extreme brutality that follows. David’s inaction in the face of increasingly serious thuggery is more reminiscent of “The Big Lebowski” than “Hamlet,” and while he’s clearly uncomfortable in these new surroundings, he never seems as essentially foreign a presence as Hoffman’s ivory-tower Yank did in Cornwall. Lurie also never bothers to broach the red state/blue state divide that seems like fertile ground.
The climactic violence, while filling entire frames with blood, will certainly not cause as much of a stir as its ’70s counterpart did. (One character even references the “Saw” franchise, underscoring how permissive the standards of onscreen carnage have become in the last four decades.) This film’s version of Amy’s rape, a sequence in the original still fiercely debated by cineastes and feminists, remains immensely uncomfortable, despite the dicey gender politics of the original having been excised. Yet the new variation it introduces, which compromises the narrative consistency of Skarsgard’s Charlie, makes little sense.
Nonetheless, Skarsgard remains the film’s standout performer, limning the only character to have been significantly deepened from the original. The hulking Swede nails his Southern accent without overdoing it, and his performance implies a depth and internal logic to Charlie’s actions that the film doesn’t necessarily grasp.
To a lesser degree, that’s true of everyone here. Being a modern couple, David and Amy discuss their marital troubles openly, though they rarely advance beyond couples’ therapy lingo. David explains the Taoist parable from which the film takes its title, excusing redneck resentment as a residue of failed football careers — a bit of audience hand-holding the film shouldn’t need. In these cases, Lurie has introduced a brew of additional motivations to characters who could have been simple archetypes, but in fleshing them out, he only spotlights the narrative inconsistencies in their decisions.
The film’s tech specs are professional if sometimes workmanlike, and lenser Alik Sakharov does well to capture the humid browns and oranges of the Louisiana filming location. A badly CGI’ed deer sparked some guffaws in the screening attended, but the stuntwork and editing in the final battle is solid. Larry Groupe’s score can sometimes come on a bit strong, though his primary mode of softly drifting swells of strings undercut by creepy dissonance is smart.