The ultimate question that plagues the release of any remake is, “Why bother?” It’s something that could be asked of any number of the legion horror remakes we’ve seen in recent years (though admittedly, some have been perfectly entertaining), but it’s particularly appropriate in the case of Rod Lurie’s redo of Sam Peckinpah’s controversial 1971 thriller, Straw Dogs.
Why remake a film so of its time, and so clearly Peckinpah’s own – a brutal, nihilistic psychological stand-off based on a book by Gordon Williams?
The original saw Dustin Hoffman’s meek American mathematician head to a quiet Cornish village, the birthplace of his wife Amy (Susan George). There, Hoffman engages in a battle of testosterone and wits against its sturdier menfolk, who are hired to fix up their farmhouse, but soon take an unhealthy interest in the mathematician’s young wife.
Lurie’s Straw Dogs is, in terms of its events, almost identical to the original, but relocates the story from Cornwall to Blackwater, Mississippi. James Marsden takes over the old Hoffman role as David Sumner, who’s now a Hollywood screenwriter instead of an academic, while his attractive wife Amy is played by Kate Bosworth, who provides the film’s best performance.
Like the original, a group of sturdy locals are hired to fix the barn roof at the house of Amy’s late father. Among them are her ex-boyfriend Charlie (Alexander Skarsgård) along with a rather anonymous collection of checked shirts, beards and baseball caps inhabited by actors Rhys Coiro, Billy Lush and Drew Powell.
Charlie and his macho builders make no secret of their sleazy attraction to Amy, nor their contempt for the slight, bookish David. Outside events, meanwhile, which involve a drunken, violent football coach played by James Woods, and his young daughter’s rather odd attraction to simple-minded local Jeremy (Dominic Purcell, who looks like the ghost of Richard Nixon), soon serve as a catalyst for a series of confrontations that begin as harassment, and threaten to boil over into violence.
There are several problems with this remake. The first is its ill-advised casting – Marsden may not be as tall as Alexander Skarsgård’s towering alpha male, but it’s difficult to truly accept him as the ineffectual character he’s meant to be. James Woods, too, fails to convince as a fiercely protective alcoholic jock, and his rampant overacting is often comedic.
It’s strange to see an actor as charismatic and reliable as James Woods floundering about in what should be a tense drama, and I’d argue that Lurie’s script is to blame. It makes a typical Hollywood remake mistake – explaining things that were implicit in the original in a thuddingly obvious manner. The meaning of the title is explained in blandly detailed terms, David’s writing a screenplay about the Siege of Stalingrad, handily foreshadowing later events, and there’s a clumsy attempt to rope in something about returning soldiers from Iraq into the proceedings.
And by relocating Straw Dogs to America’s South, the script also introduces all kinds of depressing stereotypes – the barroom brawls, Bible-thumping preachers, pick-up trucks, town fetes and country bands are all present and correct.
The film struggles, too, with its gender politics. Perhaps realising that Amy has to become something more than the abused doll played by Susan George in 1971, the new version makes Kate Bosworth’s Amy more eloquent and independent – that is, until events dictate that she has to become an archetypal woman in distress. It’s as though Straw Dogs wants to stand alone as a more modern, right-on film, but can’t escape the archaic underpinnings of its predecessor.
Lurie has wisely excised the more troubling and outright misogynistic elements of Peckinpah’s film (which were horrible four decades ago, and no better now), but his Straw Dogs remains a perplexingly simplistic male nightmare fantasy about defending one’s castle.
In fact, this modern Straw Dogs falls down in one vital area: the arc of its central character, as the atavistic protector within him slowly awakes, is clumsily handled, and the film as a whole lacks the rising tension that Peckinpah brought to his version. Later confrontations, so icily violent and uncompromising in the original, seem rather daft as a result – like an R-rated sequel to Home Alone.
If you’re looking for an intelligent exploration of destructive masculinity and how ugly it can be, I’d suggest that A History Of Violence is actually the rightful successor to Sam Peckinpah’s film. It explores the issue of masculinity and bloodshed in a far more subtle, mature and tense manner than the new Straw Dogs, which in remaining so slavishly faithful to the original, stands as little more than a faded copy.