Film review: Straw Dogs (2011)

Straw Dogs
Battleplan Productions

STARRING James Marsden, Kate Bosworth, Alexander Skarsgård, Dominic Purcell, Laz Alonso, Willa Holland, James Woods
WRITTEN BY Rod Lurie (screenplay), David Zelag Goodman & Sam Peckinpah (story), and based on The Siege of Trencher’s Farm by Gordon Williams
PRODUCED BY Rod Lurie, Marc Frydman

SHOT BY Alik Sakharov
EDITED BY Sarah Boyd
MUSIC BY Larry Groupé

Screened 2011-09-14

While I am certainly a fan of Peckinpah’s 1971 film, it has depreciated for me in subsequent viewings. The fault lies with Peckinpah the Writer and his liberty with (or simply misuse of) dramatic contrivance. But all in all, he made a scintillating film that poses some difficult questions and in which we are privy to some excellent performances from Hoffman and Susan George, and best of all are able to witness Peckinpah’s occasionally expert mise-en-scène. Lord knows Rod Lurie has not intrigued me like Peckinpah and my expectations were six feet under walking into this. Walking out, however, I was quite surprised to find myself pleased and virtually without complaint – and lest that sound too complimentary, just don’t forget where those expectations started out. For an unnecessary Hollywood remake, I’d say this did fairly well.

Characters: James Marsden is David Sumner, overly academic Hollywood screenwriter, with his pretty wife Kate Bosworth as Amy, hot LA actress who incredibly cannot memorize the rules for chess. Location: deep rural Mississippi, Amy’s hometown, father’s property, old stone castlekeep which is not exactly a relic of Southern aristocracy… more like a rich southern kook’s pet project. Hm – and for a story about ‘the house which marriage resides in,’ I must say it would’ve been nicer to linger and stroll around those interiors more than we did. The old family barn needs repair and the Sumners hire a crew of calloused and crude hayseeds whose alpha just happens to be Amy’s old quarterback beau. Mr. Sumner makes certain that the boundaries between his private controlled environment and the muggy hick backwater are clearly delineated, ensuring some mounting resentment from the simple contractors, and it doesn’t help that Sumner is perpetually condescending, aloof and a cuckold to boot. The workers come to represent that which hubby cannot control, and they squirm their way past the Sumner Marital Tensions right into the Sumner Marital Bed. As most viewers already know, the Straw Dogs story is famous for its extended home invasion climax, where hubby’s passive-aggression becomes frantically active. The catalyzing spark comes from James Woods, the true southern relic, Confederate style, whose bloodstream courses with whiskey, whose hand strikes other men on a daily basis, and whose young daughter, Janice, is somehow the prettiest creature in Mississippi. All we needed, all we wanted was an excuse for the bloodshed.

The film’s main problems are ones of translation, clearly, and I would submit are most apparent in the dated qualities. It is, for instance, a bit difficult for me to swallow the idea that any place in America is truly cutoff and barbaric in 2011 – let alone a town with a football team the size of the one we see. No, no… we’re looking for the town in Kent, Connecticut that we saw in I Spit on Your Grave, the tiniest sinkhole in the world with nothing and no one. There are also a few misogynistic attitudes prevalent in the Sumner marriage and surrounding country that were passable in 1971 but in 2011 are clearly indicative of serious dysfunction. This speaks to the film’s power when it was released – in 1971, what we witnessed was the wound under the scab. It is a scab which has since healed, so a new wound was created for the audience’s “benefit.” Marsden’s Sumner was too cocky and indignant to explain his passive-aggressive madness response to the Mississippian hicks; his vengeance is wildly over-the-top, and all the moreso because he appears quite controlled while he’s dishing it out. Hoffman’s Sumner wore a mask of sanity which became stretched so tight that we could see sweat and steam hissing from the seams. Marsden’s Sumner appears to simply have a genuine psychopath neatly tucked not far from the surface. It’s not as if there isn’t an element of truth there… but I wouldn’t like to meet the man who can ‘really relate’ to this film. The New Amy is not any better. In what I thought was a somewhat appalling scene, Amy gets back at her husband by walking to her upstairs window and giving the rural contractors a deliberate, brief striptease before closing the window. In the original, Amy merely makes the mistake of walking by the window topless and not leaving quickly enough. Lurie’s adaptation, in my opinion, all but ruins any sympathy we have for Amy. It is simply too stupid and irresponsible to bear. So, for some reason we do have this film, and it may please diletante cinephiles. I did certainly think, during the viewing, “If this film had not been regurgitated, it would actually be one of the better studio films of the year.” Almost… but not quite. I think what I enjoyed most was looking at Marsden with those round black glasses and that careless Joker smile plastered on his face. He was just asking for it.

written by David Ashley