The remake of the 1971 screen classic Straw Dogs is as unnecessary as one might expect.
The original, starring Dustin Hoffman and Susan George as a couple besieged by British thugs, helped redefine screen violence and featured one of the most complicated rape scenes in film history.
The new Straw Dogs sands away most of those rough edges, leaving a competent revenge tale marred by Hollywood’s latest slap at the South.
James Marsden steps in for Hoffman as David Sumner, a bookish screenwriter who moves into his wife’s childhood home in Blackwater, Miss. He’s the modern movie version of a nerd, a strikingly handsome and fit gent who wears oval glasses and doesn’t watch football.
David thinks a subdued Southern town like Blackwater is the ideal spot for him to complete his latest screenplay.
“Quiet is what I want. I like quiet,” he says of his bucolic new digs.
David’s actress wife, Amy (Kate Bosworth), just wants to decompress after getting jettisoned from a recent TV gig.
But the locals, wearing clothes from the Larry the Cable Guy collection, have little patience for a “cream puff” like David, who drinks light beer and flashes a credit card to pay his bar tab. One exception is Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard), Amy’s old flame hired by David to complete the roof on the farmhouse adjacent to their new home.
Charlie and his motley crew of assistants will put up with David’s big-city ways if it means eyeballing Amy on a regular basis.
The roof workers immediately clash with David. They start the day at the proverbial crack of dawn, their boom box blasting nothing but Southern rock. They also see nothing wrong with barging into David and Amy’s home to raid the fridge.
David remains polite to a fault, while Amy bristles at his inability to stand up for himself. By the time they realize they’ve made a mistake in relocating to Blackwater, it might be too late.
Straw Dogs revisits all the major story beats of the original, from a subplot involving a mentally challenged outcast to Amy serving the workers a saucer of milk after finding the family cat hung in the couple’s closet.
The film’s setting represents the biggest modification. The first Straw Dogs took place in the quaint English countryside. The new version pits David’s liberal softness against the modern South, an unrelenting place where Gods, guns and gridiron glory reign supreme.
Those looking for a red and blue state clash can look no further than what writer/director Rod Lurie delivers here.
“It’s the South. We know our guns and our cars,” one worker boasts, while another complains about that so-called global warming that pointy-head types keep harping on. One of Charlie’s crew drives a truck with a bumper sticker that says, “Keep honking, I’m reloading.”
Straw Dogs plays like an extended sneer at the South, a clichéd look at a culture it can’t be bothered to treat with dignity. And pity poor James Woods, the gifted character actor asked to chomp the scenery like so many fried pickles playing a burned-out football coach.
The film is on more solid ground when it examines the sexual dynamic that results when women dress in a provocative fashion. Amy jogs braless around her neighborhood, and when the workers ogle her, she complains to David. She bristles when he suggests she dress more demurely.
I dress for you, she says. It’s the most provocative exchange in the film, a feminist roar that sets the new film apart from the original’s whiff of misogyny. But soon Amy is seen peeling off her clothes in full view of the workers in an attempt, perhaps, at Girls Gone Wild empowerment?
I am woman. Watch me strip.
The film’s reimagining of the pivotal rape sequence lets Lurie appease feminists who found George’s reactions ghastly. What can’t be explained away is why a modern woman wouldn’t dash off to the nearest cop to complain.
Hoffman’s David Sumner proved bristly at times, a nerd whose social graces lagged behind his analytical mind. Marsden’s version is like a puppy dog, a man far too eager to please. The few times he offends the locals feel like jerry-rigged moments meant to further separate him from his new neighbors. David walks out of a church sermon midway through and then seems shocked when someone tells him he was being rude. Later, David belittles religion in front of the work crew in a way that would make Bill Maher stand up and cheer.
Surely, an intellectual like David would know better than to brazenly insult people of faith?
The 1971 film connected the dots between the story’s culture clash and the inner beast dwelling inside even a milquetoast like David. Lurie’s tale plays out in a far more bumpy fashion, as if tracing the source material’s key elements meant more than tying them together in an organic manner.
The new Straw Dogs makes better use of the bear trap that figures so prominently in both stories. But in just about every other way that counts, the original outpoints the remake.