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Straw Dogs

September 17, 2011
Straw Dogs

I have to start with full disclosure here: I am a huge fan of the original Sam Peckinpah version of this movie.  And it’s not like it’s hard to find on DVD — Netflix doesn’t seem to have it yet for some reason, but it’s on Amazon — and it definitely wasn’t made in the Hayes Code era where everything had to be bowdlerized or the relevant technology has significantly improved since then.  So why should we have a remake of Straw Dogs?  The best answer is probably “it’s a damn good movie and dumb kids today can’t be trusted to seek out anything before the blockbuster era on their own”.  The question, then, is “is it any good?”. I have to say, the answer is “yes”.  Writer/director Rod Lurie takes Peckinpah’s gem and polishes it brilliantly.

David Sumner (James Marsden) is a screenwriter in Hollywood, and a rather successful one at that.  His wife, Amy (Kate Bosworth), is an actress whose most notable appearance is a minor role on a television drama.  But still, she’s making her life after running away from the small town of Blackwater, Mississippi as soon as she could.

But when Amy’s father dies, they move back to his big old backwoods house on the river to fix it up for sale.  They hire a construction crew — Charlie (Alexander Skarsgård), Norman (Rhys Coiro), Chris (Billy Lush), and Bic (Drew Powell) — to fix the barn that was pretty severely damaged in recent years.  Amy cleans, and David works on a screenplay about the resilience of the Russian army in the Battle of Stalingrad.

Blackwater — Amy jokingly refers to it as “Backwater” — is an iconic deep south town, where traditional values and what is euphemistically called a “traditional” sense of masculinity hold sway.  It’s the sort of place where the first string high school football team are celebrated as heroes, even as they fade away into a bunch of good-ole-boys with a little roofing business.  They can cruise and retain their sense of importance; the alcoholic former coach (James Woods) can get away with all sorts of behavior; it’s the sort of place where folks take care of each other, though sometimes you wonder what they mean by “take care of”.

David, of course, sticks out like a sore thumb.  He drives his six-figure vintage Jaguar into town, speaks over most people’s heads, and leaves huge tips in an attempt at magnanimity.  He talks about “when in Rome”, but doesn’t seem to really understand how to fit into the group.  And as it becomes apparent that Charlie isn’t willing to leave his quarterback-head cheerleader relationship with Amy in the past, David has no idea how to respond in the local dialect.  For all his high-minded diplomacy, they’re headed for a confrontation.  As the tagline says, every man has his breaking point.

All of this, I have to admit, is far clearer in Lurie’s treatment than in Peckinpah’s.  Even the decision to change David from being a mathematician to a screenwriter plays more cleanly into the setup.  The antagonists’ motivations are more apparent, and somehow more disturbing for it; these aren’t just a bunch of id-driven savages, but people who make deliberate choices.  The climactic sequence is shockingly violent, just as it was before, but it’s clearer now that it’s the violence of necessity — the violence of a man rising to meet a force that can no longer be stopped or diverted any other way.

Further, I have to admit that every actor in this version — except Marsden — easily surpasses their counterpart in the original.  This is not to say that Marsden is bad, but that it would be hard to overtake Dustin Hoffman’s performance.  Frankly, I’m not sure he ever has, himself.  Still, everyone around David in the original was little more than an archetype, while here they’re far more effectively fleshed-out.  And as with the plot, the clearer rendering serves to make for a far more thoughtful film.  These ideas were always within Peckinpah’s version, but they took much more work to bring to the surface; maybe audiences forty years ago were more up to that task.

Really, both films are excellent.  Peckinpah made a great movie and Lurie stood on his shoulders to improve it.  Watch Straw Dogs in the theater now, since you’re not likely to get a chance to see the other like this.  But do go and watch the original as well, so you can compare them for yourself.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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