Posted August 15, 2011 by David Watson in DVD/Blu-ray
 
 

Straw Dogs


Have you ever been to the Edinburgh Fringe? Every year in August, Edinburgh plays host to the world’s biggest and best Arts festival. There’s the cream of comedy, music, theatre (lots of theatre), dance, mime, opera, circus all vying for your attention over the course of a (normally) wet Scottish Summer.

Have
you ever been to the Edinburgh Fringe?
Every year in August, Edinburgh plays host to the world’s biggest and
best Arts festival. There’s the
cream of comedy, music, theatre (lots of theatre), dance, mime, opera, circus
all vying for your attention over the course of a (normally) wet Scottish
Summer.

This
year’s crop of Cambridge Footlights will try desperately to get a TV contract,
some Hollywood star will get back to his theatre roots man, by directing a
small play above a Leith pub. And
every year, American high schools will send their theatre programmes over to
stage a show. Sometimes it’s Mamet
(Speed The Plow and Sexual Perversity In Chicago being favourites), often it’s
Shakespeare (you’ve never seen Macbeth until you’ve seen him played by a
teenager from Nebraska) but usually it’s Death Of A Salesman. Usually they’re quite good. Once you get past Willy Loman being a good-looking, toothy 17-year-old. 40 years after the release of Sam
Peckinpah
’s classic Straw Dogs, film critic-turned-film director Rod Lurie gives us a
defanged remake which looks and feels like an American high school production
starring a bunch of good-looking, toothy young things.

David
and Amy Sumner (James Marsden & Kate Bosworth) return to her small town in
the Deep South after her father’s death.
He’s a timid Hollywood screenwriter and she’s the local gal made good;
the cheerleader who went off to Hell-A and became a famous actress. Moving into her dad’s farm, tensions
soon escalate when David hires Amy’s childhood sweetheart Charlie (Alexander
Skarsgard
) and his buddies to fix the barn roof.

Former
football heroes whose glory days are long behind them, Charlie and his buddies
harass and intimidate the young couple as they try to fit in with small-town
life. When Amy is brutally raped
by Charlie and one of his men and David shelters the injured, mentally disabled
Niles (Dominic Purcell) who may have accidentally killed town bully Coach
Heddon’s teenage daughter, the conflict with the locals escalates as they lay
siege to the farm, demanding they surrender Niles and intent on killing anyone
who gets in their way. If David
and Amy are going to survive they’re going to have to fight back…

Despite
making an almost scene-for-scene remake of the original, Lurie’s Straw Dogs lacks bite. Gone is the queasily uncomfortable,
moral ambiguity of the original, replaced instead by a white-is-white
certainty. Shifting the action
from the original’s windswept, desolate Cornwall to America’s Deep South does
nothing for the film. Charlie and
his gang are caricatured, boo-hiss, Southern Gothic villains you’ve seen a
dozen times. From the word go,
they’re a bunch of swaggering, slavering, Bible-thumping redneck bullies and
rapists so it’s not a huge surprise when they go on the rampage. But they’re not racist, no sir. Even when they kill the town’s black
sheriff (Laz Alonso) it’s just because he’s in the way, nothing to do with the
colour of his skin. It’s strange
that in a film which portrays America’s Southerners as rape-happy, murdering,
disabled-hating, cat-killing, vigilante thugs that the greatest taboo should be
suggesting that they might not like black folks.

While
the action is competently staged (apart from a frankly laugh-out-loud coup de
grace involving a bear trap that echoes the original film) and the performances
are decent enough, watching this Straw Dogs just reminds you how good the original
was and makes you wish you were watching that instead. It genuinely feels like an American
high school am-dram production.
Everyone’s too good-looking.

James
Marsden’s hunky scriptwriter with the actress trophy wife shares only his
character’s name with the Dustin Hoffman’s weedy, maths nerd in the
original. Marsden was one of the X-Men for God’s sake. We know he’s only going to take so much
before opening up a can of whoop-ass.
And he’s never ambiguous the way Hoffman’s David was. In the original it was always left
unresolved who killed Amy’s cat; Peckinpah dropping enough clues to suggest
that it might have been the emasculated, passive David. Marsden’s David is however a hero in
waiting. While Hoffman gave into
the darkness inside him and found pleasure and an aggressive assertion of his
masculinity in the film’s climactic violence, Marsden’s just doing what a man’s
gotta do.

The
bad guys are all quite pretty too.
Even the fat one. And let’s
face it, if you absolutely had to spend time in a prison cell with another man,
wouldn’t you want that man to be Alexander Skarsgard? Please note: at no time am I condoning Skarsgard’s behaviour
in the film or implying that being raped by Skarasgard wouldn’t be unpleasant. All I’m saying is he’s not an ugly
man. They’re all just too darn
good-looking and young. The only
person in the film who isn’t is James Woods as the sadistic Coach Heddon. And even he’s pretty hot compared to the
original’s Peter Vaughn (Grouty in Porridge).
Increasingly, Woods seems to be turning into a caricature of himself and
watching him in this is reminiscent of his guest spot years ago in The
Simpsons
.

The
worst thing, the absolute worst thing, about this remake of Straw Dogs is (sharp intake of breath,
stage whisper) it’s not that bad!
It’s kinda ok. Pretty good
even. If you’ve never seen or even
heard of the original. It passes
two hours, it builds tension nicely, the script’s a little unsubtle but the
action is well-staged and brutal.
But it’s just not Straw Dogs.

It
does however feature a hilarious opening scene where a deer does a double-take
right before being shot by Charlie and his bestest buddies on a hunting
trip. That deer is worth the price
of admission alone.


David Watson

 
David Watson is a screenwriter, journalist and 'manny' who, depending on time of day and alcohol intake could be described as a likeable misanthrope or a carnaptious bampot. He loves about 96% of you but there's at least 4% he'd definitely eat in the event of a plane crash. Email: david.watson@filmjuice.com