Tuesday, September 20, 2011

"Straw Dogs" remake is pointless but still tense


Straw Dogs (2011) 
110 min., rated R.
Grade: B -

"I will not allow violence against this house," David Sumner (James Marsden) firmly states as he takes a moral stand. Below the surface, the remake of "Straw Dogs" is still about renewed masculinity, the definition of rape, and instinctual violence, but unlike Sam Peckinpah's controversial, subversively violent 1971 shocker with Dustin Hoffman as the nebbish, spineless David that has to do some "manning up," it won't inspire the same debate or discussion. Besides transplanting from Cornwall, England to Blackwater, Mississippi and changing David's occupation from a mathematician to a Hollywood screenwriter, "Straw Dogs" is virtually a beat-by-beat remake but only a partial facsimile of Peckinpah's disturbing ideas. 

Marsden and Kate Bosworth play David and Amy, his TV-actress wife, who stay at her family's farmhouse of her Deep South hometown so David can work on his screenplay about WWII's Stalingrad battle before they put the land on the market. David has hired Charlie (Alexander Skarsgård), the town's hunky ex-quarterback and Amy's former flame, and his drooling buddies to fix the damaged barn roof on their property. David tries to fit in with the roughneck locals, chugging heavy beer (because Bud Light is for city wimps) and paying cash (because credit cards are strictly used by rich people), but they mock his big-city intellect. Once Amy jogs along her property without shoes or a bra, she gets angry when the contractors "practically lick the sweat off her body" and realizes why she should never have come back home. Sure enough, Charlie and his Blackwater boys will put David's masculinity to the test, and they will huff and puff and (try to) blow the house down. But David's house is David's castle. 

"Straw Dogs" doesn't deviate much from the original screenplay, both based on Gordon Williams' novel The Siege of Trencher's Farm. This time, there is a spoken explanation of the title, but the same story beats and plot points are all here (i.e. the strangulated cat, the town idiot flirting with a country bumpkin's teenage daughter). Writer-director Rod Lurie's faithfulness may be a fault of the film, as a great deal of scenes, shots, and lines of dialogue are reproduced (however, the original's metaphorical last line is left out). He does retain the same country/city friction, slow-burn tension, and viscera, and finally executes a wildly violent kill-them-all revenge beatdown with those pots of boiling oil and that nasty bear trap. Whereas the original film's violence was intense and contentious upon the time of its release, the violence here is brutal but less shocking and exploitative than a "Saw" movie of our desensitized times. The last act of revenge will make most audiences cheer, which in actuality would make us the sick ones, celebrating violence. The technical credits are proficient, although the only real downside is the generic music score by Larry Groupe, swelling at every chance it gets.

As Hoffman and Susan George's successors, Marsden and Bosworth make an even more credible couple. They actually have a conversation about whether or not Amy is "asking for it," which brings a bluntness rather than an ambiguity. David's character arc is less sudden, as he shows some backbone before the ultimate showdown. Whereas George played Amy more childish and needy, Bosworth makes Amy more likable and tough, although her rash decision about attending a football game, post-rape, makes little motivational sense. That said, the pivotal rape scene in 1971 held more of an ambiguous implication on Amy's face. This time, it's more matter-of-fact and objective but harrowing enough without rubbing our noses in it as some horror films do. All of the rednecks are painted in the broadest of strokes as leering, drinking "I Spit on Your Grave" hicks. James Woods' perpetually sozzled and belligerent ex-high school football coach, especially, lacks any form of subtlety and thus lacks menace. On the other hand, Skarsgård has more wiggle room for charm and skeeze as Charlie. 

Like a renovated house, the foundation is the same but a few cosmetic changes and tweaks are made for better or worse. What was once complicated, ambiguous, and gray is now more black-and-white and maybe less interesting. Remaking "Straw Dogs" is as necessary as Gus Van Sant remaking Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" into an in-color, shot-for-shot Xerox Copy, but on its own terms, Lurie's film is solidly tense, just unremarkable.

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