Thursday, September 15, 2011

Review: Straw Dogs (2011) unneeded, but effective as a B-movie thriller.

Straw Dogs
110 minutes
rated R

by Scott Mendelson

If not for the fact that it were a remake of a beloved 1971 Sam Peckinpah film, Rod Lurie's Straw Dogs would be a prime example of what we claim we want in our popcorn entertainment.  It is, quite simply, an old-fashioned star-driven thriller with an emphasis on character and relationships.  It stars adults, concerns adults, and deals with explicitly adult subject matter.  That it doesn't quite work as a piece of social commentary is merely a strike against it, but the picture remains intelligent and tense throughout.  I suppose we can discuss the irony of something that was quite controversial back in 1971 being rather run-of-the-mill today.  To paraphrase The Tower of Power, what's hip yesterday, will today become passé.

A token amount of plot: David and Amy Sumner (James Marsden and Kate Bosworth) have temporarily relocated to Amy's Deep South childhood neighborhood following the death of her father.  David is a Hollywood screenwriter attempting to craft a script about the Battle of Stalingrad, while Amy is his movie-star wife.  Alas, cultures soon clash as David finds himself not-quite blending in with the very 'Red State' locals and the neighbors, including Amy's high-school boyfriend, take a more than appropriate interest in the hometown hero come home.  Needless to say, tensions rise, tragedies occur, and David will be forced to find out what kind of man he really is.

What was somewhat novel back in 1971, that of a mild-mannered educated man unleashing his inner violence in self-defense, is almost a cliché forty years later.  Graphic violence in films that aren't pure action pictures or horror films is more-or-less accepted even while if gets more press than it should.  And, for better or worse, rape scenes such as the one in both Straw Dogs films are not quite as controversial as they were back in the day.  For what it's worth, this new version does remove the whole 'did she enjoy it?' bit from the original, which is probably a wise choice.  The whole discussion over the original film is downright silly, as rape is still rape even if the woman (for whatever reason that I'm in no position to judge) finds moments of pleasure during what clearly is a home invasion and violent sexual assault.  Removing that token element nips a stupid conversation in the bud and can allow audiences to focus on the overall picture.  Anyway, with that out of the way, I can say that the Lurie remake follows the original story line pretty closely and, (to my loose recollection) the third act pay-offs are even pretty similar.

Where the film does differ is in its undertones.  The original was (according to my memory of one viewing many years ago) a generic look at an thoughtful, educated pacifist who is forced to commit brutal violence to protect his home and his family.  This version plays the same card, but adds some pretty on-the-nose political leanings as well, as James Marsden's David is a stereotypical 'latte-liberal' (lives in Hollywood, atheist, Ivy-League educated, etc) while the people he encounters in this new environment are almost clownishly 'Southern' in their appearance and behavior. What the film is leading up to of course is a clash of 'civilizations', where the liberal screenwriter will have to realize that his enlightened pacifism isn't enough when confronted head-on with danger.  But, quite frankly, such concepts have already been done (and in a less overt and obvious fashion) by films like Alexandre Aja's The Hills Have Eyes remake and Lakeview Terrace (the latter a vastly underrated movie).  So Rod Lurie's new film stumbles as social commentary not because he's remaking a 1971 picture but because his theoretically 'new ideas' are not so new.

Having said that, the film works pretty well as a straight dramatic thriller.  Marsden and Bosworth make sympathetic leads and there is a genuine romantic chemistry in their initial moments.  Alexander Skarsgård lends a genuine intelligence and quiet menace as the lead antagonist, while most of the rest of the cast (James Woods, Dominic Purcell, Willa Holland, etc) merely act as background characters to the primary drama.  The picture builds a genuine tension right from the start, showing a somewhat objective eye towards both Skarsgård and company's genuinely displeasing behavior and Marsden's often clueless reactions.  There is a subtle undertone to the idea of blue-state David allowing his new red-state neighbors to 'frame the terms of the debate'.  Although, for example, it seems a stretch that a man as intelligent as David wouldn't know NOT to leave a crowded church sermon and take a nap outside.  The first act moments of David basically being pushed around out of fear of confrontation have a real dramatic weight, and the film works as an intelligent thriller.

So if Straw Dogs fails as political parable and perhaps loses points due to the whole 'it's a remake of a classic!' argument, it does work on its own terms as a genre picture.  It is relatively intelligent and well-acted, successfully creating tension when tension is needed.  The film has little of the shock value of the original, which is almost a positive since it can be judged apart from whatever controversy the original film stirred up.  As a 'man defending his home from invaders' picture, it's on the upper end of the scale.  And it is different enough from the original film to work as a companion piece, two variations on the same story (or two somewhat sensationalized adaptations of the same novel, natch).  I'm not sure the world needed a remake of Straw Dogs, especially one with overtones that have already been covered elsewhere, but the film is still a pretty decent thriller.

Grade: B                


Colin "Fitz" Biggs said...

I can't imagine why Lurie thought this needed another adaptation, but at least it gives James Marsden an opportunity to act a little.

Fern Baum said...

My f ather made the original with Sam Peckinpah. I guess I am going to have to see this version to compare myself to the original.


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