Remaking a well-known film can leave you with many problems. If you stick too closely to the original, the audience will call you on it and more than anything, the film’s twists and turns can become predictable bores. Luckily for director Rod Lurie, he chose to remake a film that has a strong cinemaphile profile but never caught on with the mainstream crowd back in 1971: Straw Dogs. Sam Peckinpah’s controversial little film on violence and the nature of man starred Dustin Hoffman, yet never caught on, only raking in $11 million worldwide. What this means is that despite only changing the setting from England to the redneck South of the United States, Lurie’s tale can exist as a wholly new experience for the average filmgoer. However, your appreciation for that may be tempered by the controversial parts largely being in tact. Hit the jump for my full review.
David Sumner (James Marsden) and wife Amy (Kate Bosworth) are a seemingly happy couple that have relocated from Los Angeles to take up residence in Amy’s former childhood farmhouse in the deep South of the United States. David, a screenwriter working on a script about the Russian’s in World War II, thinks he can use the pleasant country atmosphere to focus on his work. However, David’s stylish ride, dress, and demeanor draw the ire of the town residents that are already incensed that their beloved TV star Amy is married to the guy in the first place. At the top of the list is Charlie (Alexander Skarsgård), Amy’s former beau. He is more subtle about his dislike of David, but still moves in on Amy despite her big ole wedding ring. Besides being tall and athletically built, Charlie also has a group of friends he constantly hangs with and they have won the bid to rebuild the Sumner barn. Tensions slowly rise as David takes inaction instead of action against these physically dominating males on his turf until things boil over in a big way.
To say that the transition from England to the deep South was done smoothly would be an understatement. Apparently this film was destined for the rednecks of America, who drink too much, hunt too much, and womanize. Caricatures abound in the film, and include James Woods as Tom Heddon, a redneck ex-football coach that is a drunk and spiraling without direction in a town that gives him too much leeway because he used to be a big deal. It’s a sad and pitiful role, yet Woods does it with absolute conviction. Oh, and he has a precious cheerleading daughter named Janice that continually flirts with the local dim-witted boy Jeremy Niles (an amusing role taken on by Dominic Purcell) despite it being forbidden by her father. Can you see where that thread is going? There are a lot of story elements going on, and it is conveniently updated for the modern times as well. Cell phone reception is shit by the farm, but the local law enforcement seems to be focused on the lone African-American sheriff, John Burke (Laz Alonso).
You can see the potential for racial slurs and tension, yet it oddly goes unspoken and unmentioned. More or less, he draws some heat because the hicks just want to have a good time and don’t like the local law, color be damned. That’s an interesting point when everything else that can seemingly go wrong, does, with mixed messages. As the film builds towards it’s final conclusion, something has to give and David finally snaps. Amy is pushy and wants to see her husband take action, but when he makes that turn it feels like he scares her as well. The final 30 minutes of the film thus takes on an odd action-heavy feeling when the precedings were more sly than overt. Perhaps it’s why the climax is such a stunning woosh of violence. Yet, it plays out almost exactly as the original did.
Everything about Lurie’s work is serviceable and the film as a whole takes on an unnoticeable but functioning feel. The cinematography is concise and keeps things in focus, and even the action sequences are well-done. Nothing here is going to be remembered long after the movie ends, though, unless we talk about Amy’s character arc. The sequences that were so controversial in the original are back, though the ambiguity that drew even more poison is gone. That’s a welcome change, but the film still never feels like the violence against her is necessary. She remains mum on the matter, and it’s almost as if it is exploitative in many ways. Many critics in the ’70s railed against it for similar reasons, and it really does nothing for the character arcs besides her own. The final showdown has absolutely nothing to do with it.
In the end, Straw Dogs seems to stand as a modern remake updated with current cinematography and feel, yet still doesn’t improve on the original’s themes. If you are walking in uninitiated, you will have much to chew on after the film. As a straight thriller, it works with a satisfying conclusion. The tension is palpable, and anyone that has felt out of their element or even bullied knows David’s feelings. But there are a ton of ideas and emotions explored that most films wouldn’t dare to touch 40 years after the original came out. Perhaps some themes are better left in the past if you aren’t going to do anything but rehash them.