Movies: Straw Dogs

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In updating Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 Straw Dogs, Rod Lurie tries to use a scalpel where his predecessor always went for the axe (to spectacular effect). Dustin Hoffman’s nebbishy mathematician David in Peckinpah’s original has been replaced by James Marsden’s thinky Ivy League screenwriter David, hard at work on a script about the battle of Stalingrad. Kate Bosworth plays Amy, a crime series actress; the gulf coast subs in for the English countryside. The two roll onto the Delta landscape of her childhood in a restored Jag (with superfluous hood ornament). They are the Sumners — the very picture of hipster Hollywood doofuses who kind of are Just Asking For It (a recurring theme in both versions of the movie).

They’re home to restore and flip her late father’s “farmhouse” (a stone cottage…in Mississippi?). Over the course of a fried-pickle dinner at the local watering hole, they encounter Amy’s ex-football-sweetheart, Alexander Skarsgard as Charlie, and his construction crew, along with a hysterically over-the-top ex-coach James Woods who really wants to be overserved, and who quickly plays out some daddy-daughter issues with Dominic Purcell in the updated role of Jeremy (the updated role that was known as The Village Idiot in the original, a character that’s a variation on everyone from Lenny in Of Mice and Men to Billy in The Last Picture Show). Marsden tries to fit in at the bar (Bud Lite?) while Skarsgard close-sits with “Amycakes” on her side of the booth and makes a neighborly bid to affordably re-roof their post-Katrina barn in a timely manner.

It doesn’t go well, and not in that usual Contractor-takes-off-early, falsifying receipts way. The crew has problems with boundaries. They help themselves to the fridge. They blast their music and drown out David’s enjoyment of the Classics (it’s an update: wouldn’t he have an iPod, with earbuds, even if his smartphone got no signal?) They ogle Amy, who opts to go running without athletically appropriate foundation undergarments. He suggests she wear a bra. He references reaping and sowing arguments. She heads upstairs and angrily flashes the roofers from the window. They all attend church for the big pre-Game sermon, and David wanders out, bored, explaining that he’s not much one for Jesus (funny for a guy who had so many biblical things to say about a bra). Charlie doesn’t care for the big-city condescension. Later, home from church, the Sumners discover their cat has… met with foul play.

It’s been suggested that Peckinpah didn’t like women (and not in the usual Dane Cook kind of way). Lurie’s resume is unabashedly feminist (The Contender), but Amy’s character is off-the-reservation in both movies.

The one sensible thing she does is blame the roofers for the cat, and in response, David …agrees to go on a hunting excursion with them, where he presumably hopes to find both his manhood and good sense (“Shotguns? With rednecks who don’t like me? Don’t mind if I do!” Duck season. Rabbit season! Duck Season!!) This leaves her unattended and defenseless in the farmhouse, where Charlie shows up and semi-forces his way in. (It’s not Skarsgard’s fault that no one will be able to watch this scene without expecting him to explain he has to be invited in, as he does on True Blood.)

Sam Peckinpah’s axe was a bloody beautiful precision instrument, whereas Lurie’s approach is more clumsy — entertaining, but hamfisted. The Battle of Stalingrad. Really? Marsden’s character might as well work for NPR or PBS. Does the local high school football team really need to break the huddle with “Not One Step Back!” (Stalin’s famous order 227) for Lurie to be sure viewers get the symbolism? Did the town have to be named Blackwater? Does the movie have to open with long shots of CGI deer juxtaposed against a deer rack mounted on a pickup grill? Do the redneck yokels have to listen to Skynyrd and Molly Hatchet to hammer home their drunken Southern roughneck capacity for violence (when, in the contemporary smalltown South, they’d more likely be listening to a Toby Keith, or perhaps rap).

The “townfolk” love football and God, but that isn’t necessarily the shorthand for ignorant and savage that Lurie seems to think it is. Although he’s clearly seen A History of Violence and The Strangers (along with Friday Night Lights and certainly The Last Picture Show), the line between movies about the pornography of violence, and actual torture porn, is blurry here.

Is this remake entertaining? Yes. It does its job of being relatively thrilling. Skarsgard is excellent in his first Viggo Mortensen-style role outside of True Blood.  Marsden and Bosworth give uninteresting and one-dimensional performances — but their characters aren’t meant to be likable or empathetic, so it doesn’t unduly bog down the movie. (She is far worse than he is, and should watch Naomi Watts in Funny Games or Reese Witherspoon in Fear to see how this territory can be done right.) James Woods thinks he’s in a different movie than this one.  It’s a shame to see Justified’s Walton Goggins’ wasted in a minor role, because he steals the few scenes he’s in. As for the cat? Well, that cat had it coming.

Whereas Peckinpah’s body count and blood served Peckinpah’s vision, Lurie’s vision just isn’t as searing or precise, and his execution doesn’t live up to the complex meditation on violence, classism, Red State vs. Blue State, and gender roles that he seems to think he’s making. One of the roofers jokingly asks David early on if he’s worked on anything like Saw, and the implication seems to be that this is better than that — that they occupy a different cinematic bloodlust universe. But they don’t. The criminals in The Strangers provide a classic summary near the end of that movie when the sweet young wedding guest couple asks them why they were singled out to be terrorized and tortured. The answer is: “because you were home.” Sometimes it is that simple, and Lurie overthinks that in a way that Peckinpah never would have.

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