When Sam Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs” appeared in 1971, it was a genuine cinematic provocation, not just because of its violence—sexual as well as bloody—which was shocking for its time, but because of its vision of what makes a man a man, one that was characteristic of the director but unsettling nonetheless. And whether you found the film brilliant or odious (or both), it was unquestionably the work of a master.
Rod Lurie’s remake won’t elicit such strong reactions. It’s certainly competently made, and despite a change of locale from Cornwall to Mississippi, it’s generally faithful to the original in narrative terms. But it’s prose rather than poetry, basically an impersonal work without any strong directorial imprint, and in an age when depictions of unsuspecting families being assaulted in their homes by brutal thugs have become commonplace on screen, it doesn’t offer anything special. So while the film produces some shocks, they’re of a conventional kind, and though decently crafted, it ultimately comes across as rather tawdry.
This time around the victims-to-be are actress Amy Sumner (Kate Bosworth) and Hollywood screenwriter David (James Marsden), her husband, who return to her homestead in Backwater (sorry, Blackwater), Mississippi, so that he can have the peace and quiet necessary to finish his script on—wait for it—the Battle of Stalingrad.
Upon their arrival, the couple are accosted by the most lurid bunch of redneck southerners seen on screen since Arthur Penn’s “The Chase.” The worst of the lot is certainly “Coach” Tom Heddon (James Woods, so over-the-top he slides from awful to awfully funny), a drunken boor who rejoices in bullying mentally-challenged Jeremy Niles (Dominic Purcell), who’s attracted, in his childish way, to Heddon’s coquettish daughter Janice (Willa Holland), who rejoices in egging the pathetic fellow on. But equally dangerous is Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard), an old flame of Amy’s who heads a crew of backwoods goons but seems quite courteous and reasonable on the surface. Actually, though, he considers David a liberal West Coast milquetoast to be casually humiliated and Amy a target to be taken advantage of.
David bends over backwards to be conciliatory—a stance that Amy comes to consider a sign of his weakness. He even hires Charlie and his loutish gang to fix the roof on the barn—a task they perform lackadaisically while taking the opportunity it affords to irritate him—and falls into a trap when they invite him to go deer hunting with them, an occasion they use not only to scare him nearly to death but to leave him stranded as they sneak back to the house to rape his wife (having previously killed the family cat).
But David finally “mans up,” as “Coach” would say, when he takes an injured Jeremy—whom he’s hit with his car after the man had accidentally killed Janice and run away—back to the farm, only to have the place attacked, Wehrmacht-style, by “Coach,” Charlie and all the boys when David decides that he won’t give Niles over to the lynch mob. His refusal infuriates them and they launch an assault on the place, to which David responds with a nail gun, boiling water, clubs, bricks, firearms and finally a bear trap. Amy gets into the act, too.
What “Straw Dogs” is about, of course, is the old saw that a man’s home is his castle, and that if he’s any sort of man he’ll defend it at all cost. But while Peckinpah’s aim was to turn it into an eternal myth, for Lurie it’s merely the occasion for a pulpy testosterone horror show, the thriller equivalent of the Blackwater high school football game that everybody, including the fire-and-brimstone town preacher, goes wild over.
But while just a shallow clone of the original, the new “Straw Dogs” is a workmanlike cousin. Lurie builds the tension cunningly, and Marsden is fine, if not Dustin Hoffman, as the worm that finally turns. Bosworth captures Amy’s vacillation between him and Charlie fairly smoothly, and Purcell is a suitably blank punching-bag. But the real standout is Skarsgard, who makes Charlie not just a menacing brute but a canny, sexy predator. The production is more than adequate as well, with cinematographer Alik Sakharov making good use of the locations (Louisiana standing in for Mississippi) and Larry Groupe contributing an atmospheric score.
In all, this new “Straw Dogs” is superior to most of the home-invasion potboilers produced nowadays, but for real bite Sam is still “the man.”