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Straw Dogs

Straw Dogs

By Ben Nicholson • March 14th, 2012
Static Mass Rating: 1/5
Sony Home Ent.

Release date: March 12th 2012
Certificate (UK): 18
Running time: 110 minutes

Writer and director: Rod Lurie

Cast: James Marsden, Kate Bosworth, Alexander Skarsgard, Dominic Purcell, James Woods

I am not usually one for remakes. Of course, there are major exceptions to every rule and I love A Fistful of Dollars, The Fly and Ocean’s 11. But for every Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, there’s The Invasion; and that’s not to mention The Wicker Man, The Day the Earth Stood Still and the Coens’ blunder, The Ladykillers.

So, having finally come around to seeing Sam Peckinpah’s controversial “classic” Straw Dogs recently I was not exactly brimming with hope for the 2011 remake. Having said that, given the major problems that I felt that the original film had in its portrayal of women and of masculinity (more on that here), perhaps this was a chance to examine those aspects more fully and perhaps take into account the 40 years of debate surrounding the subject.

This time around David Sumner (James Marsden), an intellectual screenwriter, and his wife Amy (Kate Bosworth), a TV actress, are moving to Amy’s hometown. It’s a backwater, redneck area where they plan to live in her father’s old house while David finishes his screenplay about the Battle of Stalingrad. When they arrive in town they bump into Amy’s machismo-oozing ex-boyfriend Charlie Venner (Alexander Skarsgard) who, along with his friends, begins working on fixing the roof of their barn.

Straw Dogs

The malice that these locals feel towards David, both for being a rich ‘Hollywood’ type and for being married to Amy is shown when they first wave him past them on the road only for him to nearly crash into some workmen, and then when he finds the cat strangled and hung by the neck in their closet. After being too afraid to confront the men about the cat, David ends up going out into the woods on a hunting trip with them and whilst they are out, Charlie pays a visit to his old flame Amy and forces himself upon her. Then his friend Norm arrives and does the same.

When a young cheerleader then goes missing during the local football game and it is suspected that the slow local man, Jeremy (Dominic Purcell), has hurt her, they end up besieging David and Amy’s house trying to get to him. David will not let them act out their own brand of justice and a bloodbath ensues after the father (James Woods) of the missing girl kills the local sheriff and the group realise that they have gone too far to turn back.

Now, I took issue with the original film in my recent review for its misogyny and what I feel to be a pretty one-dimensional inspection of masculinity and stated that these were big black marks against an otherwise very well made film. So what happens if, despite 40 years of debate, the film is remade without rectifying or even examining those elements of the original and without the level of craft and expertise of Peckinpah and co? Straw Dogs 2011 is what happens.

Straw Dogs

It was obviously going to be nigh on impossible for James Marsden to live up Dustin Hoffman’s fantastic performance in the original film. Hoffman is, for my money, one of the greatest actors in the history of film on his day and so, despite the fact that Marsden is actually quite good in the role, he is hampered by perpetually being in Hoffman’s shadow. Kate Bosworth is also not bad as Amy although, despite being marginally more rounded than in the original, she does not really have a fully formed character to work with.

Alexander Skarsgard is an interesting choice as Charlie; being a bit of a heart-throb and having his shirt off regularly to show off his body significantly changes the dynamic with Amy, which the script also takes pains to do.

So to the script. The plotting all works fine and actually a lot of it is lifted straight from the original film including the inventive and bloody ways in which David fights off the invaders. Some dialogue sounds a little strange when delivered in an American accent (those that seem like English phrases) but that is easily forgiven; however there are some truly awful lines added to make explicit the characters motivations and the themes of the film. I had a horrible feeling early on when David tries to pay by his card and is told by the waitress that they only accept cash. “Cash,” he says and she replies with “Yeah, cash.

Straw Dogs

Y’know, the stuff us poor people use for money.” Similarly, in case the audience had not gathered that David was not masculine enough and needs to ‘man up’, a number of lines makes this abundantly clear.

The biggest shift in the script though is an attempt to make Charlie, the initial rapist, significantly less culpable. The set up sees a number of glances between Amy and him prior to her performing a strip-tease at the bathroom window in front of him and his friends because she is annoyed with David. When he does force his way into the house and upon her, it feels like anything but a rape scene and instead Amy seems more like a woman trying to stop herself betraying David than a woman terrified of her attacker. Similarly he is shocked when she will not look at him afterwards and it seems almost as if he has misjudged the situation and thought that she wanted to have sex with him. Obviously none of this acquits or excuses him but it does go some way towards making him seem a lot less nasty. Of course he does not stop Norm from raping Amy though, even if he does not actively hold her down as in the original film.

Straw Dogs

So the themes are the same and little is done to alter the attitudes of the original. There was a moment when David and Amy begin to discuss the way she dresses in front of the men and I thought that the film was moving towards looking for insight into how men perceive women and engaging with the debates that the original film threw up but this is entirely undercut by Amy’s subsequent show for the locals. The eroticising of the rape scene is removed but so is all the brutality and terror of it, and the way that it is shot means that it comes across more like an aggressive sex scene with the camera shying away and music volume drowning out any screams when Norm becomes involved.

Ultimately, this remake of Straw Dogs is a dialled back, toned down version of the original with significantly less in terms of performance, film-making panache or controversy and without those it just seems to fall completely flat.

Ben Nicholson

Ben Nicholson

Ben has had a keen love of moving images since his childhood but after leaving school he fell truly in love with films. His passion manifests itself in his consumption of movies (watching films from all around the globe and from any period of the medium’s history with equal gusto), the enjoyment he derives from reading, talking and writing about cinema and being behind the camera himself having completed his first co-directed short film in mid-2011.

His favourite films include things as diverse as The Third Man, In The Mood For Love, Badlands, 3 Iron, Casablanca, Ran and Grizzly Man to name but a few.

Ben has his own film site, ACHILLES AND THE TORTOISE, and you can follow him on Twitter @BRNicholson.

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