Straw Dogs Dir. Rod Lurie

[Sony Pictures; 2011]

Styles: redneck slasher, etc.
Others: Straw Dogs, Wrong Turn, The Crazies

Sam Peckinpah’s films beg present-day Hollywood to remake them. He was, after all, “Bloody Sam,” the man credited with introducing graphic violence to unsuspecting Americans and who is likewise credited with turning that violence into art. But ever since egregious violence became de rigueur in big American movies (Conan: The Barbarian, Saw, etc.) the degree to which it’s done artistically has dropped like a stone (see Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive for at least one good example of violence done right). The movies are in need of an American auteur with the chops of a Peckinpah to turn their obsession with violence into something credible.

You wouldn’t think of the director of a 2000 Bill Clinton-Kenneth Starr parable when considering who that auteur might be, and you’d be right not to. A man reasonably adept at navigating the soap-operatic halls of a fictional Washington D.C. (in The Contender and no less than two other political yarns) trying his hand at remaking the rape-tinged work of the maestro of manhood and misogyny? Sometimes choosing a left-field director rewards a studio with a slightly unique take on a mainstream product — like when David Gordon Green made Pineapple Express or when Howard Hawks did Red Line 7000 — but just as often the result is an oddly perfunctory genre entry like this one.

Whatever you think of Peckinpah, you have to really watch his films. Time and again, he came about as close to greatness as any American director in his own lifetime. I haven’t seen everything he did, but I include The Wild Bunch, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and The Ballad of Cable Hogue in that estimation. If he was only the sum of what his detractors accused him of being — a misogynist with a blood-and-revenge fetish — then a remake of one of his works, provided it turns those accusations into commentary, is justifiable. But if there’s little room for improvement in the Peckinpah oeuvre, then a remake will look like nothing more than an exercise in senseless violence.

Director Rod Lurie’s new Straw Dogs is just such an exercise. Although it shows the mark of a competent director — it has a decent grasp on how to dole out the thrills — it nevertheless looks and feels like a mishmash of every Southern slasher movie that’s been turned out in the past fifteen years, from Cold Creek Manor to Wrong Turn to The Crazies.

Hardly straying a bit from the plot of the Peckinpah version (both are based on a novel, The Siege of Trencher’s Farm, by Gordon Williams; the remake I’m reviewing claims to be based only off of the novel), this new Straw Dogs has a nerdy (read: handsome actor who’s wearing spectacles) Hollywood screenwriter named David (James Marsden) move to the small Mississippi hometown (in the novel, it’s an English hamlet) of his pretty wife, Amy (Kate Bosworth), to live in her family’s rundown farmhouse and to theoretically get some old-fashioned peace and quiet. Things turn immediately ominous when Amy’s old flame, a super-buff local carpenter named Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard) begins dropping not-so-subtle hints that the locals don’t take kindly to college-boy outsiders like David. Being essentially decent, personable, and class-conscious, David responds to Charlie’s blue-collar condescension by hiring him and his crew of good ol’ boys to fix up an old barn on the property. Having invited his wife’s hot-blooded ex-lover into his home, perhaps as a subconscious challenge to his own manhood, David is left to defend his wife when Charlie and the good ol’ boys turn vicious.

If it truly wants to be viewed apart from the Peckinpah version and be seen as a new adaptation of the novel, it has a funny way of going about it. Lurie might have done much better by eschewing the expected ramping-up of violence in the story’s infamous third act and instead focusing on the class disparity angle introduced in the beginning of the film. He certainly would have put his skills to better use, because a director of tasteful political films is just basically unsuited to both the artful tastelessness of Peckinpah and the artless kind that this version of Straw Dogs is.

Most Read