Movie Review: ‘Straw Dogs’
By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
A glorified home invasion thriller is still a home invasion thriller.
And Straw Dogs, despite intentions as a meditation on our capacity for violence, remains just that.
It’s a remake of a 1971 thriller that was directed by Sam Peckinpah and starred Dustin Hoffman as a pacifist seeking revenge for atrocities committed against his wife and himself by bullies in a British village.
In this transplanted redo, the setting changed from Cornwall, England to Blackwater, Miss., James Marsden plays David Sumner, a Los Angeles screenwriter, with Kate Bosworth as his actress wife, Amy.
Tensions emerge in their marriage when, after her father’s death, they move back to her family home on the Gulf Coast. She is getting her father’s house ready to sell, while he works on his current screenplay about the siege of Stalingrad (one of many foreshadowing references, some of them almost insultingly obvious, as if the movie itself were the intellectually sophisticated protagonist and we were the primitive townsfolk).
But the couple is soon menaced by local hooligans who have been hired to do repairs on the dilapidated barn, which was severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina. And one of them just happens to be Charlie, Amy’s ex-boyfriend, played by Alexander Skarsgård, whom she left behind when she left for Hollywood.
Charlie is a contractor who was a high school football star when Amy was a cheerleader, in a town where Friday night football is a religion. His glory days well behind him, Charlie immediately resents David’s relationship with Amy, as well as his seeming supposed superiority as a Jaguar-driving Ivy Leaguer.
It’s quickly obvious, whether David wants to admit it or not, that the simmering violence in this town is about to come to a boil. It could come from Charlie’s former football coach, a drunken blowhard and overprotective father of a teenager played by James Woods.
But David is a smart, civilized guy who feels any problem can be discussed and worked out. Even redneck barbarism.
Surely he can articulate bridges over any of these troubled waters. But casual acts of cruelty by the workmen push him beyond his usual boundaries, even if Amy disapproves of his apparent passivity in the face of conflict.
The script by writer-director Rod Lurie (The Contender, The Last Castle, Nothing But the Truth) is, like the original film, based on the story by Peckinpah and David Zelag Goodman, which was itself based on the Gordon Williams novel, The Siege of Trencher’s Farm.
It examines masculinity and the territorial imperative, with slight traces of misogyny, in its depiction of a nonviolent character who, once sufficiently threatened, resorts to primitive savagery to protect his home and loved ones.
There is, the film says, a killer inside each of us. And sometimes outside. And the irony of Lurie’s screenwriting protagonist being an amazingly efficient to-the-death fighter gets lost in the shuffle but plays like a childish in-joke.
The film abounds with arbitrary behavior assigned to characters to advance the plot but that contradict human nature. And things worsen at film’s end because Lurie is not a natural action director, as the choppy, inauthentic climactic standoff makes clear.
By then, the film is playing to an audience craving incendiary explosions and graphic payback rather than anything that resonates beyond the special-effects playground.
The title refers to objects, neither loved nor hated, that were used in sacrifices by the ancient Chinese and then tossed aside. The titular reference here is to the townsfolk who feel worthless after high school and its regular pep rallies end.
As was true of the original as well, this is an unpleasant film to sit through. The question in 1971 was, and is today: does the cathartic satisfaction provided by the escalation of hostilities in the film’s violent climax make that unpleasantness worthwhile?
The answer from this corner? Nope.
So we’ll defend 2 stars out of 4 for the second big-screen rendering of Straw Dogs. If only it was as thought-provoking as it is stomach-turning.