Equal measures smug and savage, Rod Lurie’s infuriating remake of Sam Peckinpah’s vengeance thriller “Straw Dogs” still packs a visceral punch. An exploitation picture built on redneck cliches and big city liberal outrage, it’s not all bad. But it is a pretty unpleasant wallow in the obvious.
Lurie, whose career has become a careen (unreleased or under-released failures) since “The Contender,” has cleverly re-set the tale, that of a mild-mannered bookish and emasculated city dweller (Dustin Hoffman in the original, James Marsden here) challenged, bullied and battered by brutish, primitive locals from England to Mississippi.
In the small town where his hot-actress wife. Amy (Kate Bosworth) grew up, God, guns and goal posts are the measure of a man. Beer swilling and deer hunting, in and out of season, is the “way of life.” David (Marsden) tips too generously, drives a flashy vintage car whose tires he doesn’t know how to change and rolls the cuffs of his dungarees up. He sings. He jumps rope. He prefers light beer. The locals see him and think “pansy.” Or worse.
Hiring a bunch of them, including Amy’s high school beau (Alexander Skarsgard) to fix the roof on the barn on the family farm Amy inherited is just asking for trouble. She is way ahead of her screenwriter husband on this. He’s too over-awed by the staggering collection of William Faulkner/Tennessee Williams cliches that Lurie slaps in the script — the simpleton with a history of taking sexual liberties from the local girls, the drunken, belligerent ex-coach (James Woods) who threatens one and all, his harlot cheerleader daughter who flirts with the slow-witted guy (Dominic Purcell). These characters are all tolerated, because “we take care of our own,” as they say in all the old Southern movies and plays.
All that’s missing from Lurie’s dated and limited research is Blanch Dubois and “the kindness of strangers.” All that’s missing from the performances are the city slicker John Lennon glasses. Oh wait, he gave those to David.
David, writing a script set at the Battle of Stalingrad, listens to his Tchaikovsky and Beethoven as the redneck roofers blast out Molly Hatchet. They, especially Charlie (Skarsgard), challenge him repeatedly. He bends over backwards, trying to fit in, go along to get along. And Amy loses another chunk of respect for him every time he lets some rube walk into their kitchen, take a beer out of the fridge and grin about it.
He is far too willing to buy into “That’s the way we do things around here.”
In the “code” of such tales, we know David is asking for trouble. He’s gun-shy, smaller than every man in town and yet still expecting to live by civilized big city rules. Amy knows better. Maybe she’s seen the original film. Every time you give a bully an inch, he takes a mile — or liberties with your wife.
The foreshadowing is comically obvious, the petty insults and egregious outrages formulaic. And Amy’s ways of fighting back are risible pages from the Melodrama 101 textbook. Yeah, take off your shirt (no bra) in front of them. That’ll show’em. Marsden, more at home in light comedies and musicals, may have seemed like inspired casting. But we never believe he’ll stand up to these guys, that he’s even up to it.
Lurie’s resetting of the movie may seem dated to a real Southerner. But you don’t have to dig into ancient history to find the redneck thuggery suggested here. Where the original film was a commentary on the endangered state of manhood in the late 20th century, Lurie seems to be making points about the ineffectual ways reasonable people face belligerent ignorance. It’s intellectual liberals vs. Tea Party hicks with guns. Get it?
One “improvement” stands out. Sam Peckinpah rather famously forgot to leave out the Chinese proverb that gave the original film its title. Lurie has David explain it in a moment that feels like a class recitation. It comes right after the nightly chess lesson he gives his young/naive wife.
It’s not a terrible film, but “Straw Dogs,” this time around, does push the wrong sorts of buttons. It veers from its social commentary into the trite and bloody, with a finale that is unimaginative and rote. Lurie, desperate to make something people will see, has bloodied his hands and sullied his motives to make a movie that is as ugly as it is out of date.
MPAA Rating: R for strong brutal violence including a sexual attack, menace, some sexual content, and pervasive language
Cast: Kate Bosworth, James Marsden, Alexander Skarsgard, James Woods.
Credits: Written and directed by Rod Lurie, based on the Sam Peckinpah film and the novel “The Siege of Trencher’s Farm” by Gordon Williams. A Screen Gems release. Running time: 1:49