On its surface, the 1971 Sam Peckinpah film Straw Dogs is about a young couple who must contend with a nasty gang of English thugs. But beneath that simple story, and not too deep, either, is a fascinating dramatic analysis of things like love and loyalty, cowardice and action, sex and violence. Although vibrant and brutal on the screen, the film hinges upon intangible things that are barely mentioned: how a wife can prey upon her husband's weakest point, without even knowing it; how a man will sometimes belittle his own wife only to gain a small, meaningless sense of superiority; how we all long for safety, but sometimes, often unwittingly, crave danger and violence and the sweet sting of adrenaline. Written by the late Mr. Peckinpah and David Z. Goodman (from a novel by Gordon Williams), the original Straw Dogs is as potent and powerful a tale of "civilized vs. chaos" as John Boorman's blistering Deliverance.
So clearly I'm a big fan of Straw Dogs, which makes me both highly skeptical and curiously intrigued by the brand-new remake. Written and directed by Rod Lurie (The Contender), the new Straw Dogs... here I go on a tangent. But first, an anecdote:
RAPE was the true nasty to me and my horror-loving pals in the great 1980s. We could watch Maniac and Dawn of the Dead and even those ridiculous Faces of Death movies -- but we were sort of scared to see movies like Mother's Day, I Spit On Your Grave, and Last House on the Left -- and I was truly horrified by Straw Dogs when I watched it one mindless afternoon.
Those four films have something in common, aside from their depiction of nasty rape: they've all been remade, and recently. It'd be highly unsavory of me to assert that "rape sells," as far as movies are concerned, but that's sort of how it feels here. If the original Straw Dogs did not have an infamous rape scene, would it be getting a remake today? I have no idea; I noticed a weird pattern so I wrote something random on it. Let's move on...
On its own, as a basic "home invasion" thriller with a periodically nasty edge to it, Rod Lurie's new version of Straw Dogs works pretty well. It's about a beautiful Hollywood couple who return to her flyspeck Mississippi home town, only to butt heads with a former flame and his numerous scumbag friends. The class system conflicts, the sexual politics, the unspoken but simple resentment between an educated city boy and his hayseed equivalent... it all boils up, rather predictably (but never drably), and leads into a third act filled with vicious attacks, horrible accidents, and endlessly violent retribution. On the surface, much of Straw Dogs (2011) entertains, albeit in a smooth, simplistic, and decidedly unambiguous fashion.
Had the 2011 version of Straw Dogs been the only version of Gordon Williams' novel, we'd have an intense, obvious, occasionally silly, but generally passable piece of weeknight movie entertainment for adults. Unfortunately the shadow of the Peckinpah version looms large over this remake, which is another way of saying that the new version is just like the old one -- minus all of the deep, creepy, almost primal sensibilities of the original movie. Of course it's unfair to judge a remake by such lofty standards, but it's difficult to see Straw Dogs (2011) as little more than a slicker, prettier, and considerably less challenging version of Straw Dogs (1971). Where the original was an assault, the remake is content to be a crowd-pleaser.
The cast is another issue: here James Marsden and Kate Bosworth are entirely watchable, but she lacks Susan George's icy mean side, and he (completely) lacks Dustin Hoffman's innate, well, nerdiness. No longer an American couple left to fend for themselves in an English village, the couple is now a gorgeous, smug duo who are returning home to Mississippi. Hardly makes the same impact, thematically speaking. Also on hand to make things a little more broad are James Woods as one of the most absurdly mean-spirited characters you'll ever see and Dominic Purcell as the handsomest "town moron" who ever pulled on a pair of overalls.
Ultimately the Straw Dogs remake is little more than a well-polished, slow-burn horror film that winds an audience up for 75 minutes, and then lets them cheer and hoot and holler as a whole lot of righteous revenge is doled out. The depth, the darkness, and the delicious ambiguity of the original film may be all but gone, but as the final invasion roared on and on, the audience that surrounded me sure didn't seem to mind.