It would appear that in the 21st century, everything old is new again. And perhaps nowhere is that more true than in Hollywood. Whether it is in remakes or sequels, Hollywood has this way of repeating itself. As a result, it seems most unsettling that one of the films from the past that should be remade for a 21st century audience would be a film that, when released near the end of 1971, caused extreme uproar because of its explicit violence and sexual material. The film in question is director Sam Peckinpah's controversial shocker STRAW DOGS, which remains, alongside Stanley Kubrick's A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, among the most hotly debated films of its time or any time in history. For whatever reason, though, Hollywood thought it needed an updating, and so former film critic turned director/screenwriter Rod Lurie stepped into the shoes of "Bloody Sam" to do it.
Following both the film's original source material (Gordon M. Williams' 1969 novel "The Siege Of Trencher's Farm") and the 1971 screenplay written by David Zelag Goodman and Peckinpah, this particular version was moved from the original's setting on the Cornwall coast of England to a backwater town somewhere along the Mississippi/Louisiana border. James Marsden takes on the role of David Sumner (played by Dustin Hoffman in 1971), who has come to this small Southern town with his wife Amy (Kate Bosworth, taking over for Susan George) to work on a movie screenplay based on the 1943 battle of Stalingrad. And as it so happens, his seeming demure nature puts the redneck boys down there in the position of superiority over him, first when Bosworth's pet cat is found strangled in the closet, then, to make matters even more sinister, when Bosworth is raped by her former boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgard) and another man (Rhys Coiro).
Marsden, however, comes to his senses when he takes in the local mental invalid (Dominic Purcell) who has unintentionally strangled the daughter (Willa Holland) of the town's ex-football coach (James Woods). Woods, Coiro, and Skarsgard show up on Marsden's property and brutally demand that Purcell be handed over to them, but Marsden, knowing fully well what will happen to him, Purcell, and Bosworth, does no such thing. The end result is ultra-violent mayhem in the film's last twenty minutes.
Lurie, who made two of the best films of the year 2000 (DETERRENCE; THE CONTENDER) likely set himself up for a fall in trying to tone down the most objectionable parts of the Peckinpah original that made it, in the eyes of some, a "fascist" work of art: the rape scene, which is a bit too quickly done and a bit too aimed to show Bosworth as a feminist, though she is every bit as traumatized as George was in the original; and unwisely discounting the idea posited by Peckinpah, and based on the works of noted anthropologist Robert Ardrey, that Man's penchant for brutality and violence, far from the common notion that they would go to any means to protect their "property", is ingrained in him from the start. The other thing that is objectionable about this new version of STRAW DOGS is that, unlike the English village where Peckinpah sees the seemingly primitive villagers as every bit the match for Hoffman, the ones in this small Southern town are the unfortunate stereotypical inbred rednecks, especially Woods, who, normally a solid actor, is allowed by Lurie to overact outrageously. And the siege, though fairly well staged, is nevertheless so hyper-violent that the audience becomes a tad bit detached, instead of really being forced to confront their inner demons, as Hoffman's character, and to a great extent Peckinpah himself, did in the original film. Whereas Peckinpah was deliberately ambiguous and thought provoking, and not just a blood-and-guts expert, Lurie makes the mistake of trying to wrap everything up in a neat, albeit very bloody package.
Nevertheless, despite these flaws that keep Lurie's film from reaching the nightmarish heights of Peckinpah's, the 2011 STRAW DOGS features solid enough performances from Marsden and Bosworth, who are able to capture the psychological torment that their characters feel. They are still in the shadow of what Hoffman and George did in 1971, but they are able to bring a certain kind of resolve and emotional gravitas to the situation that Lurie doesn't always provide in his direction or script. Larry Groupe's score, though distractingly loud at times (this in contrast to the subtlety of the original film's excellent Jerry Fielding score), also works in those moments where it's supposed to. The end result is, like many remakes, rather imperfect. Still, there have been far worse remakes that Hollywood has done, and will yet do.
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