At once doggedly faithful and yet soft around the edges, Straw Dogs hews closely to the template of Sam Peckinpah's incendiary 1971 film while finding subtle, significant ways to make its controversial material more palatable. If Peckinpah's original was a rotten plank spiked with rusty nails, Rod Lurie's redo is something closer to a nicely carved Louisville Slugger, both of them violent blunt objects but one far more gnarly and nasty than the other—a matter of degree that does much to lessen the impact of this modern adaptation of Gordon Williams' novel The Siege of Trencher's Farm. With only minor narrative changes from its predecessor, Lurie's tale concerns a Hollywood screenwriter (James Marsden) and his tart wife (Kate Bosworth) who relocate to her backwoods Mississippi hometown for a summer of solitary work and relaxation, only to find that the locals—and, in particular, her burly ex-boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgård) and his redneck pals—have unsavory designs for both her and her milquetoast new hubby. As before, what follows is a caustic examination of masculinity, but despite Lurie's well-composed and taut direction, his alterations sap the material of its provocative power-though such differences are far less likely to damage its box-office potential than is its graphic and off-putting abuse-and-revenge storyline.
Straw Dogs remains a button-pushing battle between opposing versions of manliness, with wimpy wordsmith David Sumner (Marsden) in one corner, and strapping hunter-and-carpenter Charlie (Skarsgård) in the other. Lurie draws distinctions between the two in ways both big (framing David's face with Charlie's muscular arm) and small (David is writing about the far-off 1943 battle of Leningrad, while the locals mourn newly killed soldiers), all to build tension for an inevitable showdown in which manhood is consecrated as inherently animalistic, brutal and destructive. To get to that powder-keg finale means enduring a host of menacing-hillbilly caricatures highlighted by the broadly evil volatility of James Woods' alpha-psycho, as well as a subplot involving a sexual predator simpleton (Dominic Purcell) whose purpose is to both instigate the climactic showdown and to represent, alongside nebbish David's powerlessness and intimidating Charlie's virility, a third insane-deviant aspect of the film's trinity of masculinity. The problem, however, is that despite Lurie's many narrative suggestions to the contrary and Marsden's game performance, David's internal and external weakness is never wholly repulsive, and Charlie is too male model-attractive to exude real country-bumpkin danger, the result being an easier-to-swallow good-vs.-evil dynamic that lacks the critical damnation that Peckinpah aimed toward all his characters.
With David continually incapable of standing up for himself or his bride—short shorts-wearing blonde beauty Amy (Bosworth)—the missus reciprocates Charlie's advances, and Lurie follows his precursor's lead by fingering David's cowardice as the reason for Amy's eventual defilement even as—during the infamous rape scene, closely recreated here—he also makes his female character complicit in encouraging and desiring male violence. Such fidelity should theoretically give this Straw Dogs a combustible energy, but as with Lurie's direction—which is assured and shrewd—the proceedings often feel too slick and safe, pushing up against ugliness but refusing to wallow in the story's chaotic underbelly. Despite ending in a baptized-in-blood conflagration that completes David's transformation into an authentically terrifying "man," the visceral ick is missing from this redo, as is the of-many-minds complexity (some might say confusion) of Peckinpah's original. Via its urban-vs.-rural tensions and David's more heroic character, Lurie's version is simplified in small but substantial ways—a disappointment epitomized when the protagonists bluntly explain the meaning of (and thereby drain any intriguing mystery from) the film's title.
Distributor: Screen Gems
Cast: James Marsden, Kate Bosworth, Alexander Skarsgård
Director: Rod Lurie
Writer: Rod Lurie
Producers: Marc Frydman, Rod Lurie
Rating: R for strong brutal violence including a sexual attack, menace, some sexual content, and pervasive language
Running time: 110 min.
Release date: September 16, 2011