Straw Dogs, the 2011 remake by Rod Lurie of a 1971 Sam Peckinpah film, opens with a bunch of beautiful shots of a landscape somewhere in the hot, hot Misssissippi summer. That’s the first indication that Lurie is trying to differentiate his film from Peckinpah’s, a film set in England with a better cast that was a bigger deal for its violent detail when it was made.
Straw Dogs is the story of a young married couple, David (James Marsden) and Amy Sumner (Kate Bosworth), who return to Amy’s Southern homestead after Amy’s father has died so David, a screenwriter, can finish some work. David seems excited about the prospect, but Amy seems a little on edge, like every small-town woman who has spent her whole life escaping her home.
Returning to a place you purposefully left behind is never easy, but David doesn’t seem aware of Amy’s reluctance. Early on he meets her ex-boyfriend, Charlie, played by the imposingly tall Alexander Skarsgård. Amy isn't pleased to see Charlie, but again, David doesn’t seem to be very aware of his new wife’s feelings. He offers Charlie and his pals a contract to fix the roof on the family barn.
Once Charlie and his gang show up, they appear far more interested in staring at Amy -- running without a bra, of all things -- and drinking beers on the job than doing any sort of roofing work. When they do get down to business, they crank up loud rock music that bothers David. Tempers are higher when its hotter, anyway, and the man who loves Hank Williams and '40s history has a hard time reconciling with his newly impossible wife and a group of carousing dudes his own age who haven’t done a lick with their lives since they gave up football careers. When a separate plotline featuring the very drunk ex-coach, Tom Heddon (Tom Woods), and his daughter’s troubled boyfriend, Jeremy (Dominic Purcell), comes to the forefront, the mood is ripe for violence.
What follows is a chain of events and impulse decisions that lead to a vindictive and violent conclusion meant to juxtapose the difference between what makes a brute and what makes a man. The fact that Charlie and his gang choose the home invasion route is particularly compelling, with our heroes on the inside looking out and the enemy better equipped and trained to take on a brutish outlook. The violence is extreme -- but not so extreme it would garner comparisons to the much more gleefully hostile horror franchises, including Hostel. David is there to protect house and family. While he fails at the former, his success in the latter is quite epic.
However, the set-up is a bit convoluted, partly because Lurie spends too much time pointing out the difference between David’s outlook and that of Charlie and his gang to get around to the point. Of course David, with his education and his liberal sensibilities, is not going to fit in to his new environment. Do we really need to see him sleep through church, hate on football, continuously show a difference in musical taste, not understand it is inappropriate to over-tip, and not understand his derision is a poor defense, especially as he is flaunting an extremely expensive Jaguar and drinking the wrong type of beer? A few less scenes of that and a few more focusing on what this movie should be -- a home invasion film -- would have amped Straw Dogs up a notch or two. Couple these contrasts with too many atmospheric shots, and we have a slow film that also never manages to focus on building up its characters.
Which brings us to Amy, who left town to be a modern woman, but who isn’t particularly assertive, educated, or grown up. She exists more as a plot forwarder than anything else. It is Amy who draws David into the environment. It is Amy who nags him when he doesn’t want to get confrontational. Of course, it is Amy who is the object of Charlie’s lust. Her one big moment comes when she gets to confront a man who raped her. That moment, at least, could be meant to make up for her earlier whining, teasing and nagging, but in Lurie’s masculine world, the action is merely an afterthought, another way to move forward to the grand finale.
With all of Lurie’s stylistic excesses and his inability to truly re-envision or even fully modernize Peckinpah’s original, we have a slow film that is as often boring as it is abrasive. The soundtrack doesn’t help, as the music comes in too loudly and in excess, a problem that fellow director Cameron Crowe often runs into, but that is way more nonsensical here. When, in the end, Lurie chooses to shoot his final scene in musical silence, letting the noise of a barn fire say everything, I did not find myself thinking, “What a perfect moment,” as I could have in another movie, but rather, “Thank God that’s over.” It’s a sad moment for what could have been a somber, beautiful, and harrowing film.
Extras on the disc are slim. This may have something to do with this being a DVD copy, or with a budget deficiency for the home release. What is normally the “Making of” featurette in a set is split into four parts. The first, “Courting Controversy: Remaking a Classic,” addresses Lurie’s desire to remake Straw Dogs. The second, “The Dynamics of Power,” delves deeper into the relationship between David and Amy than the script ever does. The third, “Inside the Siege” is actually pretty interesting; it discusses the final scene and especially how the bear trap scene was created. Finally, “Creating the Sumner House” focuses on the location where the film was shot.
Other extras include commentary from Rod Lurie and several previews for other films, including Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, Columbiana, and Drive. The menu, too, is a somber, unmoving red color featuring Amy holding a gun. Without any extra bells or whistles, the disc falls flat. Although, I’m not sure Straw Dogs would be the type of film to inspire audience enthusiasm about extras in the first place.
Reviewed By: Jessica Grabert