Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Illustration for article titled Straw Dogs

Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 provocation Straw Dogs takes place in an insular pocket of Cornwall where the locals view outsiders with a wariness ready to tip toward outright hostility at the slightest provocation. It’s a town where egghead pacifist types learn quickly that violence sometimes provides the only answer and that letting women forget who wears the pants in a relationship is a mistake a man can’t afford to make. Not a real man, anyway. Forty years later, this remake by Rod Lurie transplants the action to remotest Mississippi, but the most notable change has nothing to do with location. To watch both films is to see a deeply repulsive view of the world as an unfailingly savage place expressed earnestly and executed chillingly, then to see the same recycled as a rote revenge thriller attempting to shoulder more philosophical weight than it can bear.

The would-be button-pusher behind The Contender and The Last Castle, Lurie retains much of his source material’s brutality but ends up defanging it through other means. James Marsden steps into the ineffectual dweeb role originated by Dustin Hoffman, here reworked as a screenwriter hoping to finish a script about the siege of Stalingrad (foreshadowing!) while he and his actress wife (Kate Bosworth) hole up in her late father’s country home. But trouble starts when Marsden hires a local contractor who also happens to be Bosworth’s high-school boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgard) to repair a hurricane-damaged barn. Skarsgard and his crew eye Bosworth with lust, looks she first unknowingly invites then purposefully courts after getting annoyed by Marsden’s weenieish tendencies. They reserve a different sort of look for Marsden, contempt for his less-than-hardened personality and big city, Beethoven-listening ways. (And, yes, Lynyrd Skynyrd is on the soundtrack to provide contrast.) Also on hand: James Woods, who sounds a note of regional inauthenticity that rings through the whole film with his unconvincing, accent-challenged portrayal of an aging good ol’ boy.

The most striking moments in Lurie’s Straw Dogs stay faithful to Peckinpah’s original. Put another way, the most striking moments lift whole shots and editing strategies from Peckinpah’s original. Lurie’s gift for mimicry ends up making the film feel even hollower than it might. Peckinpah’s most controversial scene remains without its awful ambiguity and Lurie plays the finale for thrills where the original offered a nauseating descent into savagery. The original was repulsive but impossible to shake. This remake is pure applause bait, which makes it barbaric in ways Peckinpah would never have dreamed.