STRAW DOGS (2011)
Movie Review by L.L. Soares
Back in 1971, Sam Peckinpah made the movie STRAW DOGS, starring Dustin Hoffman and Susan George. Like a lot of Peckinpah’s films, it was immediately controversial. The infamously “macho” director had made a film where a civilized, sensitive man reaches the breaking point when confronted with strangers who want to kill him, and fights back. Hoffman actually gives a terrific performance as David Sumner in it. While it’s not my favorite of Peckinpah’s films (I prefer THE WILD BUNCH (1969) and 1974’s BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA), it’s an intense, well-made film with a lot to recommend it.
So why remake it?
That’s what I found myself thinking several times while watching director Rod Lurie’s new version of STRAW DOGS. I had a lot of problems with the new version, but my number one problem is why it needed to be remade at all. And did Rod Lurie really believe he was going to make a movie that was in any way superior to Peckinpah’s original?
In the original, a mathematician named David (Hoffman) and his English wife, Amy (Susan George), go to a house in rural England that she has inherited from her deceased father. He is working on a book and wants to get away from their normal lives so he can concentrate on it. She grew up there, and while she doesn’t seem particularly overjoyed to be going back, she doesn’t have a strong aversion to the place, either. But things get rocky when some hostile locals don’t like strangers coming to their little community.
In Rod Lurie’s remake (he directed and also wrote the script, based on the original film’s script by David Goodman and Peckinpah, and based on the novel “The Siege of Trencher’s Farm” by Gordon Williams), rural England has been replaced with the modern South. This time, David Sumner (James Marsden, who you might remember as Cyclops from the X-MEN movies) is a Hollywood screenwriter with money to burn, a Jaguar convertible that he likes to drive fast, and a pretty actress wife, Amy (Kate Bosworth, who was Lois Lane in 2006’s SUPERMAN RETURNS, which also co-starred Marsden). Amy grew up in Blackwater, the town they’ve temporarily moved to. David is working on a screenplay about the Battle of Stalindgrad (where the Russians were surrounded by the Nazis, yet defeated them – can you say “foreshadowing?”).
Amy has a past with local boy Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard), that he wants to rekindle, but she clearly doesn’t. David hires Charlie and his buddies to fix the roof on their barn using FEMA money. Right off the bat, Charlie and the boys have a real problem with city boy David, who they despise for his money and his education (they think he’s condescending, when he’s really just clueless). And things go from uncomfortable to extremely violent as the movie progresses.
Yes, the new version of STRAW DOGS is yet another in a long line of movies where the South is populated by dangerous rednecks who can’t wait to cause bodily harm to Northerners. This wouldn’t bother me if it was as good as John Boorman’s DELIVERANCE (1972) or Tobe Hooper’s TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974). But the remake of STRAW DOGS isn’t even close to being in the same league as those, so it’s just irritating.
But that’s hardly the only flaw that the new movie has.
Another big problem for me was the casting. Marsden isn’t completely horrible in the role of David, but he’s no Dustin Hoffman either. Where Hoffman played the character as more internalized and neurotic, like a lot of his characters in the 70s, Marsden’s version is just bland. Susan George played Amy as more playful and flirty in the original, until things go sour and she becomes just plain scared. Kate Bosworth is actually good as Amy, but she seems to go out of her way to keep her husband in the dark about what’s going on until it’s more than obvious– something that worked better in the original.
One of my biggest casting problems, however, is with Alexander Skarsgard as the villain, Charlie. This came as a complete surprise to me, since I think Skarsgard is terrific as the villainous Eric Northman on the HBO series TRUE BLOOD. Skarsgard has real charisma and knows how to be evil. But in STRAW DOGS, he just seems confused most of the time. He just isn’t mean enough. Even in scenes where he is doing awful things, there’s a sense of pleading in his eyes. Like he doesn’t want to be there.
I felt much the same.
I don’t know if Skarsgard played it this way purposely. That he intended to show Charlie as a man torn apart by his impulses, but it didn’t work for me.
Another casting problem I had was with James Woods as Tom Heddon. Tom used to be coach of the high school football team but now seems to spend all his time drinking at the bar Blackey’s, where the bad guys all hang out. Woods plays Coach Heddon so over the top that it’s hard to take him seriously. He’s a violent drunk who seems always on the verge of exploding. I normally like Woods, too, but had a hard time believing him in this role.
By the time Charlie and the boys take David out hunting (David doesn’t want to seem unmanly – a major plot point in both movies) and abandon him in the woods, things get violent quickly. Charlie heads back to Amy’s house – since he knows she’s alone – and rapes her. And his buddy Norman (Rhys Coiro) comes along and decides he wants in on the action too, much to Amy’s horror.
Then there’s a whole subplot with Jeremy Niles (Dominic Purcell from the former Fox series PRISON BREAK)—in the original film the character’s name was Henry Niles and was played by David Warner. Niles is a mentally disabled man who has gotten into trouble previously for “interacting” with local girls, and who is attracted to the coach’s daughter. It doesn’t help that the daughter is constantly talking to him and teasing him. When things finally go too far, Jeremy ends up back at the Sumners’ house, after David accidentally hits the man while he is fleeing across the road from something bad he’s done. The coach, Charlie, and the boys all show up demanding to see Niles, and David refuses. When they try to force their way in, that’s when the worm finally turns and David fights back after enduring humiliation for the previous hour of the movie.
His change of heart takes the form of everything from using a nail gun to nail one guy’s hands to a window sill, to boiling pots of water, to a particularly gruesome finale involving a very large bear trap. As Sumner uses all these things to protect his home from the intruders, things finally reach a level of intensity the rest of the movie lacks. (Just a note that most of this stuff, especially the trap, were also in Peckinpah’s original).
When I’d seen the trailer for this new version of STRAW DOGS, I had mixed feelings. I didn’t understand the need for a remake, but at the same time, the trailer looked interesting to me. There was some potential there. Unfortunately, the movie never really delivers on that potential.
Just for the hell of it, I sat down and watched Peckinpah’s original afterwards. I hadn’t seen it in a long time, and wanted to see just how much the two movies had in common. Like I said earlier, there are a lot of scenes in the new movie that are pretty faithful to the original, but the tone was completely different.
Peckinpah’s version seemed more intense, moved at a much brisker pace, and by the end, just seemed more menacing. Dustin Hoffman was a more believable hero than Marsden, and the cast of the original (mostly British actors who weren’t very well known to American audiences) was more effective.
Critics had a lot of problems with Peckinpah’s original. Its tale of a civilized man reduced to the instincts of a killer animal didn’t sit well with a lot of them. Despite its flaws, however, I thought it worked well. By the time Peckinpah made the film, later in his career, he was a bonafide master of the medium.
The new movie explores much of the same territory, but the results aren’t the same. I left Rod Lurie’s version of STRAW DOGS feeling annoyed and disappointed.
Save yourself some time and just rent the original version instead.
I give the new version of STRAW DOGS – one knife.
© Copyright 2011 by L.L. Soares