Review: Rod Lurie's Straw Dogs (2011), starring James Marsden

Rod Lurie's Straw Dogs (2011), starring James Marsden
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PLOT: Happy young couple David and Amy Sumner relocate from L.A. to the town Amy grew up in in the deep South so that David can finish his new screenplay in the quiet serenity of the country. However, the two find their tranquility is short-lived when Amy's former flame Charlie and his rowdy crew take a keen interest in making the couple feel extremely unwelcome.

REVIEW: Rod Lurie's remake of STRAW DOGS is a competently made, more-or-less watchable facsimile of Sam Peckinpah's violent and disturbing 1971 cult classic. If that sounds like backhanded praise, well, it is, because Lurie's version is neither as daring nor as thought-provoking as Peckinpah's interpretation. While the latter left you feeling shaken, unnerved and conflicted, the remake simply seeks to push your buttons in obvious ways: Hiss when the bad guys do bad things, cheer when the good guy does bad things to them, and be exhilarated by the violence. It almost feels more inspired by the LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT remake, only it doesn't have that movie's nightmarish gusto.

Taking over for Dustin Hoffman's bespectacled mathematician, James Marsden's David Sumner is a Hollywood screenwriter seeking solace while he writes his latest opus, a WWII epic. A perfect setting appears to be his wife Amy's (Kate Bosworth) childhood home in the deep South; her father has recently passed and the couple want to fix up the old house before they sell it. As he's firmly established as a liberal nerd with next to zero “man around the house” skills, David must hire a contractor to assist in the rebuilding of a dilapidated barn. And who better than Amy's ex-boyfriend Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard), one-time high school quarterback hero, now just another former jock resorting to construction to get by. One doesn't have to be a genius to see that Charlie is instantly taken with the sight of his ex and therefor almost immediately inappropriate with her and condescendingly resentful of David, but as David's not really a genius, he hires Charlie and his loutish buddies to get to work. This is the first of David's many frustrating decisions that paint him as a serious dolt.

Charlie isn't overtly threatening initially, although his trio of companions are stereotypical rednecks who do nothing much more than drink and carry hunting rifles around. They get comfortable around the house, help themselves to beer in the fridge, show up and take off when they see fit, and altogether don't seem entirely concerned with the job they've been hired to do. David is perturbed by their presence early on, but hesitates to truly man up and fire them. Amy, meanwhile, shares some strained moments with Charlie; she's simultaneously repelled and attracted to the towering good 'ol boy. Then a cat shows up dead in their closet, David has a tumultuous hunting trip where he's nearly killed, and confrontations with Charlie go from faux-neighborly to downright hostile.

If that doesn't brew enough tension, there's an odd subplot involving the town's resident drunk Tom Heddon (James Woods, gleefully over-the-top), once a beloved coach for the high school football team, now a hyperactive malcontent whose hobby is berating the mentally challenged Jeremy (Dominic Purcell), a poor soul who is like a stand-in for Lenny from “Of Mice and Men”. This subplot takes up seemingly more screen-time than necessary, as it barely has anything to do with our distressed couple, but the two stories ultimately collide and set up the film's frenzied final act in what can't help but feel like a screenwriting contrivance. (To be fair, the simple-minded character was lifted from the original, where it also felt out of place.)

The violent culmination of all this is the movie's true reason for being, as David is forced to become guardian of his house, protector of his wife and borderline insane angel of vengeance when he must bloodily go to war with Charlie and his cohorts. An interesting approach would have been to make us uneasy at David's surprising ability to unleash hell upon the antagonists, but Lurie doesn't give much thought to that angle, instead opting to make it thoroughly clear which moments we're supposed to hoot and holler for. There's no gray here: David's descent to brutality is a victory, and we're meant to cheer him on. Only the entire showdown comes across as a complete inevitability. It happens because it has to happen, not because it's the natural progression of these characters.

Perhaps the film's biggest problem is that it's difficult to feel much sympathy for David. He comes off as ridiculously naïve early, on his way to being just plain stupid. The man brings almost all of his issues with Charlie and Co. on himself, and often. Yes, it's important that one of David's main character flaws is that he's somewhat lacking in the balls department, and his early passivity is meant to harshly juxtapose the violent creature he becomes, but we can't truly root for him if he's established as a sap who's just asking for trouble. Marsden is good, though he can't escape the fact that the screenplay never makes David a respectable person.

Indeed, the entire cast is quite good, better than their characters in fact. Bosworth hints at a previously unseen depth with a fiercely emotional performance. Skarsgard nails Charlie's oily charm, but he seems a little miscast when the going gets tough. Charlie is a downright brute by the conclusion, but Skarsgard's a tad too clean-cut and bright-eyed to channel that primal ferocity. Rhys Coiro (best known as the obnoxious director, Billy Walsh, on “Entourage”), who plays Charlie's right-hand man, is far more convincing as a conscienceless bully with a killer's instinct.

For those familiar with the 1971 version, it should be noted that the infamous rape sequence is repeated here, but the skin-crawling ambiguity of the woman's reaction toward it is pretty much abandoned, and wisely. This flick is not up to the task of twisting our perception so masterfully. The grit of Peckinpah's original is missed throughout; that STRAW DOGS is dangerous, crude and mean. The remake feels like what it is: The Hollywood version.



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