Seeking a quiet, peaceful place to write, Hollywood screenwriter David Sumner (James Marsden) and his beautiful actress wife Amy (Kate Bosworth) return to her parents’ old farm in the swamplands of Mississippi. The house itself is in good condition, but the barn needs work. The hurricane took the roof off, and since David isn’t the handiest guy in the world with his hands, he turns to some of the folks in town for help.
As it turns out, the crew he hires is led by Charlie Venner (Alexander Skarsgard), who at one point was the high school sweetheart of Amy. Thing is, Charlie’s still got eyes for Amy, as do most men in the town. When the stares turn into leers and catcalls, and the local color gets to be a bit too much for David, he puts his foot down, only to find out that it takes more than a little stomp to defend house and home from those who wish to engage in violence.
Does David, the meek and brainy, have what it takes to defend himself when no one else is willing or able to come to his defense? Is what we perceive as civility and principle really just a cover for our own murderous impulses? Such is the question at the heart of Straw Dogs.
If you’ve seen the original version of Straw Dogs, you know what you’re in for with the remake. It’s tough to out-do a master of filmmaking like Sam Peckinpah, but writer/director Rod Lurie does the original justice with his new version. He swaps England for Mississippi, keeps the dilapidated farmhouse and the clash between witty city boy and the earthy locals, but changes his job from a mathematician to a Hollywood screenwriter to further up the ante of culture clash.
Here, folks from the South don’t have problems with people who have learning: Southerners have problems with people who look down on them. The script, by Lurie, also makes it clear from the very beginning that David Sumner doesn’t belong in Blackwater, Mississippi. David himself makes it very clear that he feels superior to the locals, and he very subtly condescends to them while simultaneously trying to make friends with them. He tries, but it’s clear that he’s just following the axiom “When in Rome.” (Which he also says at one point, to boot.)
It has to be hard taking on a role made famous by Dustin Hoffman. Were I an actor, I wouldn’t relish taking that on. Yet here’s James Marsden, donning the circular eyeglasses and rocking the curly mop just like Hoffman did in 1971.
Marsden, to his credit, actually puts forth a surprisingly adept performance. He handles the transition from bookish, cerebral writer to shockingly effective defender well, becoming more of a “man” without becoming Superman.
Speaking of Superman, his co-star Kate Bosworth also handles the material well, especially the key, challenging scene on which the movie depends. Alexander Skarsgard handles the role he’s given well, and James Woods is a scene-stealer every time he’s on the screen. Make no mistake, this cast is stellar.
The only real problem I have with the movie is one I have with pretty much any remake. If you’re not going to make things different, then what’s the point of doing a remake? Yes, there are some subtle differences in the two versions, but they’re similar enough that there’s no real reason to do it again. Were people not paying enough attention to Straw Dogs before now? Was the fact that it was old keeping people from seeing the movie? I just don’t get it. I mean, this is a good remake, but it’s still money that could have been spent to do a new project.
That said, Rod Lurie has crafted a very good movie. It’s suspenseful, gritty, and doesn’t shy away from the things that made the original so controversial in the first place. It retains the truth of Peckinpah’s original, and that’s a pleasant surprise in and of itself.