Straw Dogs ✮1/2
by Glenn Lovell
The granddaddy of home invasion thrillers, Sam Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs” (1971) proved an extremely violent film with something on its mind about man’s innate blood lust. Rod Lurie’s long-delayed update is a marginally violent film, at least by today’s standards, with nothing on its mind but cashing in on the current glut of “Last House on the Left” revenge fantasies.
To put it bluntly, this is the worst “re-imagining” of an American classic since Gus Van Sant’s deadpan, shot-for-shot desecration of “Psycho.”
In the original “Straw Dogs,” loosely taken from the novel “The Siege of Trencher’s Farm,” David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) is a fussy mathematician on sabbatical in Cornwall, England, with his British wife Amy (Susan George). Sumner is what’s you’d expect of an academic: methodical, buttoned-down, not at all comfortable in his own skin. Amy, more than a bit of a tease, goads her husband into facing up to some local louts, who eventually rape her and lay siege to their stone farmhouse.
It is during this trial by fire that Sumner, like many a Peckinpah hero, experiences a cathartic rush and, his voice quivering in excitement, declares, “I will not allow violence against this house!”
Lurie, oddly, dropped this memorable line from his final cut (it’s in the trailer, however). The new setting is backwater, rather Blackwater, Miss., home to a pack of “redneck hillbillies” who, when they aren’t knocking back a few at the local watering hole, enjoy Friday Night Lights and Old Testament retribution. The worst of the bunch is, appropriately, called “Coach” (James Woods in fine form, frothing at the mouth).
Sumner (James Marsden) is now a twee Hollywood type working on a script about the Battle of Stalingrad and Amy (Kate Bosworth) is a knock-dead gorgeous bit player who once had a part in a series. The happy couple have returned to Amy’s parents’ place, the one with the falling-down barn … and lousy cell phone reception.
This is where Amy’s old high school buddies come in. Led by her old boyfriend, a blond giant named Charlie (Alexander Skarsgård), they contract to patch the barn but spend most of their time ogling “Amy-cakes” and taunting her husband.
The locals in the original hated Sumner primarily because he was a meddling American, an outsider. Lurie’s locals, more in keeping with the times, hate Mr. Hollywood because he’s rich and flaunts it, cruising the backroads in his Jag convertible.
Other cosmetic updates: iPods, computers, nail guns, references to global warming and the war in Iraq. Oh, yes, and, when things begin to heat up, Woods actually says “Man up!”
In all fairness, Lurie (“The Contender”) does a couple of things right. Bosworth is a distinct improvement on Susan George, who was never much of an actress and, at Peckinpah’s prompting, played Amy as the local sexpot. Bosworth’s Amy is smarter and, when her husband questions the wisdom of jogging braless, fires back, “Are you saying I’m asking for it?” Also, during the rape sequence, when Bosworth’s Amy shouts “No!” there’s no question she means it. Mid-assault, George’s Amy, much to the horror of feminists everywhere, began to purr like a kitten.
Marsden ‒ Cyclops in the X-Men movies ‒ was a terrible choice for Sumner. A GQ pretty coverboy, he manages none of Hoffman’s often-unsettling intensity. Hoffman played the character as a morass of quirks and self-doubts; Marsden, by comparison, seems an amiable tourist who, locals are quick to observe, can’t change a tire on his flash car.
But Marsden’s not completely to blame. In place of the bogus snipe hunt in the original ‒ a superb metaphor for Hoffman’s inadequacy ‒ Lurie provides a deer hunt in which Marsden bags a buck. The director seems to be saying, “My Sumner is a woose, but not a total woose.”
Such are the concessions one makes when dealing with a franchise commodity rather a real actor.
STRAW DOGS ✮1/2 James Marsden, Kate Bosworth, Alexander Skarsgard, James Woods. Directed, scripted by Rod Lurie from earlier script by David Zelag Goodman, Sam Peckinpah. 110 min. Rated R (for violence, language, extended rape sequences)