The latest in Hollywood’s incredibly long line of pointless, unnecessary remakes, “Straw Dogs” is a hollow, superficial film that that trades moral ambiguity for cheap sensationalism. Granted, director Sam Peckinpah’s version (based on the novel The Siege of Trencher’s Farm by Gordon Williams) was a savage male fantasy of misogyny and macho empowerment that left the viewer feeling a little dirty after the end credits rolled, it at least challenged our moral sensibilities (uber-critic Pauline Kael once described it as a “the first American film that is a fascist work of art”), writer and director Rod Lurie’s compromised reinterpretation is hollow and empty, leaving very little impression after the adrenaline wears off.
The original starred Dustin Hoffman as a timid mathematician David Sumner and Susan George as his tarty wife Amy who relocate to a farmhouse in rural England, where escalating differences with the locals and the sexual assault of Amy lead to a violent confrontation in the final reel give the impression of David finding his manhood and redemption through a bit of the old ultra-violence.
Lurie updates the script by making David (James Marsden) a Hollywood screenwriter (math geeks are too cool to look down upon thanks to “The Big Bang Theory”, while West Coast liberals are still prized fodder), Amy (Kate Bosworth) is an actress returning to her small-town home after hitting the big-time, and rural Mississippi substitutes for Cornwall. This produces instant (and obvious) story conflict and, to his credit, Lurie at least tries to work in a little social commentary that unfortunately is under-served.
Marsden and Bosworth do surprisingly with a script that leaves them hanging in the wind with one-note characters. Alexander Skarsgard likewise rises above the material as Amy’s ex-boyfriend and leader of the local bad boys, though his slide from obsessive ex to complete bastard is a tad jarring. James Woods chews the scenery from start to finish as a bullying ex-high school football coach who seems to have been imported from a community theater version of “Varsity Blues”.
Peckinpah’s film was really a look at the limits of pacifism, one that found profundity by being made during the height of the Vietnam War, the assassinations of two Kennedys and Martin Luther King, and the turmoil of the civil rights movement, and it was released after the boundary-pushing “Bonnie and Clyde” and within the same year as “The French Connection” and “A Clockwork Orange”. Though Lurie’s version comes post-9/11 (perhaps a little too late), it also comes at a time when violence in movies has risen to such a level that it is no longer shocking. This sort of rumination almost seems quaint, and it plays like little more than a cheap thriller about a home invasion.
The biggest disconnect with Lurie’s interpretation is that there is no real question of who’s right and who’s wrong. The remake has been sanitized for mass consumption, and those decisions have been made for us. David is a more acceptable cuckold, an uptight intellectual with pretty-boy looks; Amy is no longer a spoiled tease who gets in over her head; the bullies are now oafish redneck caricatures; and the inevitable confrontation is less tragically absurd and more justifiable. The result is like bad sex — one long teasing build-up punctuated by a brief, loud, unsatisfying climax.