Straw Dogs (2011)


 

Straw Dogs

Kate Bosworth wants better roles and she’ll do what she has to to get them!

(2011) Thriller (Screen Gems) James Marsden, Kate Bosworth, Alexander Skarsgard, James Woods, Dominic Purcell, Laz Alonso, Willa Holland, Rhys Coiro, Billy Lush, Walton Goggins, Anson Mount, Drew Powell, Kristen Shaw, Megan Adelle, Jessica Cook. Directed by Rod Lurie

 

There is no doubt that violence pervades American culture. We glorify it through our love of football; we aggressively defend it through our love of guns. We like to think of ourselves as civilized, sure but how civilized are we really? If violence were to come to our homes, would we know when to stop? Is there a point where we cross the line even in defense of those we love?

David Sumner (Marsden) is a Hollywood screenwriter and a Harvard graduate, a combination that you don’t see very often. His wife Amy (Bosworth) is a marginally successful actress who worked on a short-lived TV show that Sumner wrote for. After her father passed away, she is returning home to Blackwater, Mississippi where she grew up to repair and renovate his home with an eye for a possible sale in the future.

Sumner, an intellectual with a friendly but slightly condescending attitude, fits in to the good ol’ boys in Blackwater like a rhino in a flock of sheep. There’s the alcoholic ex-football coach, Tom Heddon (Woods) who fancies himself a latter-day Bear Bryant (down to the houndstooth cap) who has a somewhat slutty 15-year-old daughter Janice (Holland) who has eyes for Jeremy (Purcell), a mentally challenged young man who has had past incidents with young women.

Worse yet is Charlie (Skarsgard), a handsome handyman who once was Amy’s beau. She was a cheerleader at the time, he a football hero who still hangs out with the same bunch he did in high school. The pack of them have seen their lives go downhill since high school, a bitter pill for anyone to swallow but they dull the ache with beer and hunting trips. Charlie gets the friendly David to hire him and his crew to repair the hurricane-damaged barn on the property.

Charlie, you see, still has a bit of a torch for Amy. He also has a bit of a passive-aggressive mean streak with a hate on for David that starts to manifest itself in subtle ways, like showing up for work early enough to wake David, or helping himself to beer uninvited from David’s fridge. As David retaliates in equally passive-aggressive ways, the violence escalates.

It boils to a head when Jeremy precipitates a tragedy and through an unlikely turn of events ends up in David’s home. A maddened crowd gathers with the intent of storming David’s castle. This he cannot allow and the passive aggressive turns to outright aggressive. As the villagers take to assaulting the walls of the fortress, David turns from civilized to savage in the blink of an eye. What will this cost him?

This is a remake of a 1971 Sam Peckinpah film which at the time polarized audiences and critics alike. Starring Dustin Hoffman and Susan George as the couple, the action was in that film located in rural England with Hoffman playing an out-of-shape mathematician. The hunky Marsden is a far different physical type.

That film was notorious for the shocking brutality of its violence which at the time caused critics to wonder if Peckinpah, whose The Wild Bunch two years earlier had made violence into an art form, had gone too far. Today there are those who consider it one of the most brilliant films to come out of the 70s, pushing the anti-hero so prevalent in the era to its limits.

In some ways Peckinpah’s film was ahead of its time. While there is violence here, it isn’t as in your face as it was in the 1971 version. One of the crucial scenes in that film was a rape of the wife by the handyman. During the course of the assault, the Susan George character seems to give up fighting, and may be even enjoying it. This was considered to be misogynistic, even though there are accounts of women reacting in a similar manner in real life. That element is missing here; Amy struggles mightily throughout and in doing so removes a plot point that is crucial to the first film and makes it less ambiguous than the first movie, robbing it of some of its power. I don’t know that Lurie makes a mistake in that regard but it is a major change from the original and I can see fans of that film being outraged.

Marsden has to fill the shoes of Dustin Hoffman, one of the most brilliant actors of all time and fares surprisingly well. He doesn’t even attempt to be the same character; he is far too hunky to be convincing as a meek nebbish as Hoffman’s character was, but he does manage to imbue the character with a kind of intellectual superiority which he can’t help but flaunt.

That leads to a kind of political subtext for the movie, which then becomes a Red State versus Blue State confrontation – the Left Coast liberal who is an *shudder* atheist and an intellectual, whose presence is slightly insulting to the god-fearing, gun-toting football fans whose traditional moral values get a might twisted in an Old Testament style reckoning. Woods, who actually is kind of a Left Coast liberal, plays Heddon as a hotheaded bigot with a short fuse. He’s usually a reliable performer but here he sails way over the top and turns the coach into a character.

I don’t know that this stands up to the original, which was about the savage lurking in all of us, even the most civilized of people. Here this turns into a bit of a revenge fantasy which when you get down to it are kind of a dime a dozen. There are enough elements from Peckinpah’s original to make this worth looking out for in the rental queue but even though the relocation in my mind is perfect location casting, not enough of the changes work out well enough to make this something you’ll want to see more than once.

The sad thing is that the point is lost on a lot of audiences, who critics reported were cheering and clapping at the end. Peckinpah might have been right about the savage in all of us after all.

WHY RENT THIS: Relocation to the American South makes much sense. Marsden does surprisingly well stepping into Hoffman’s shoes. Skarsgard shows some big screen charisma.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Far too watered down, removing the shock value. Woods too over the top.

FAMILY VALUES:  The violence can be pretty brutal. There’s a sexual assault, a ton of bad language and some consensual sexuality as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lurie is the Israel-born son of internationally syndicated cartoonist Ranan Lurie.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a featurette comparing and contrasting this with the 1971 original which in a way attempts to justify the existence of the remake, but Lurie’s commentary also does plenty of that.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $10.3M on a $25M production budget; the movie fell short at the box office.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Shuttered Room

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Iron Lady

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