Rod Lurie’s remake of Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 Straw Dogs is everything that the trailer suggests. Some viewers unfamiliar with the original will find Straw Dogs (2011) to be a socially conscious horror thriller. The film tries to hide behind satire and metaphor in much the same way as Hobo with a Shotgun did earlier this year. But because this Dogs wants to play to a wider audience, the film wears its R-rating lightly and follows formula when it ought to be trying on something different. It ends up hackneyed, unnecessary, and clichéd, improved only by the A-list acting talent and slickness of the production values.
Director Lurie works from his own script, based on Peckinpah’s original that Peckinpah penned with David Zelag Goodman. Both projects are based on a novel by Gordon Williams entitled The Siege of Trencher’s Farm. The action in Peckinpah’s 1971 film was set in rural England. Lurie (The Contender) moves things to the American Deep South. The characters are similar. David Sumner, originally played by Dustin Hoffman, is now played by James Marsden. Instead of a mathematician, Marsden now plays a screenwriter. Where Susan George played Amy Sumner in the original, Kate Bosworth is Amy in the new version. Both actresses are blonde and beautiful, of course. And they play their characters in a carefree flirtatious way, leading to trouble.
As in the original, the Sumners move to the country to restore an old home. And the town is so clichéd that Lurie seemingly throws in an African American sheriff simply by way of distraction. Of course the focal point of the town is a bar, and it’s the first place the couple stops when they arrive, finding everyone there hanging out. At least the setup provides James Woods an opportunity to become unhinged, as only he is capable of becoming. Woods plays a retired football coach who has a high-school aged daughter and spends most of his time inside the bar inside a bottle.
Much attention will be paid to True Blood’s Alexander Skarsgård, who plays Charlie, Amy’s hunky old flame. He’s certainly an attractive guy with dangerous wandering eyes, and David picks up on it immediately. But instead of calling him on it, David plays nice. In time, this meekness will have to come unglued. It’s the transformation of David from victim to aggressor that is key to the film’s success. But because it is a remake of a film that’s so well known, the transformation loses much of its punch. Marsden’s performance barely rises above the level of parody.
The plotline follows a worn path that will end in violence. It’s really overly familiar and if it wasn’t for the casting, the film wouldn’t be worth a theatrical release. In fact, but for Peckinpah’s 1971 film, this kind of material would not have been greenlit for theaters. It’s another example of what actor Robert Culp told me years ago: Hollywood will always take a good title and jack it up and put something terrible underneath. Culp may not have said “terrible” but he probably meant it. And to be fair, Straw Dogs (2011) isn’t a terrible film; it just fails to distinguish itself from the countless other lurid thrillers that have populated direct-to-video/DVD shelves in the last 30 years. Instead of diving completely into satire like the ridiculous but note-worthy Hobo with a Shotgun, Straw Dogs (2011) waters down the message by appealing too broadly to a wide spectrum of viewers. And while the central thematic elements concerning use of violence still have impact, it all ultimately adds up to very little.