When I first heard that Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs was getting a makeover, I believe there were spasms of expletive fury (as I now feel of the upcoming The Wild Bunch remake at the hands of… Tony Scott?). Yet, after a weekend of contemplating whether to see the film – and then deciding to – I’m surprised how faithful Rod Lurie’s version is to the original. Overall, the slow-burn to chaotic violence found in the original is ever present in the remake, yet too much violence is used to replace the uncomfortable topic of sexuality. On a side note, it’s also a fascinating study of the modern theater audience as well.
Well, why beat around the bush? Let’s get to the violence. The indescribable tension that builds during the first two acts of Peckinpah’s tale results in one of the most uncomfortable, seat-squirming brutal depictions of sexual and physical violence in cinema (to the best of my knowledge). No matter how many negative reviews of Lurie’s Straw Dogs appear in print and online there’s no denying that Lurie does an admirable job in creating this same tension. The main difference is the film’s setting: simply replace rural England with ‘good ole’ Mississippi (the remake is heavily Americanized, taking a very hard look at the Southern States and, undoubtedly, will not be too popular among the Right-Wing, religious faithful). The Southern ‘villains’ led by Charlie, in a oddly charming performance by Alexander Skargard, are as menacing as those led by Del Henney (although James Wood’s ‘Coach’ character is more of a Southern caricature, yet still enjoyable in his over-the-top glory – as it is James Woods after all). Like the original, Lurie takes his time in unleashing a hell-fury of destruction and, most importantly, does not glorify the violence (minus one act that I will discuss). When David Sumner (James Marsden) is forced to defend his home, the bloodshed is sparse yet brutal – swift yet reluctant.
The bane of Lurie’s vision is that even in 2011 – a shot-for-shot, edit-for-edit, scene-for-scene – remake of Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs would not, and could not, make it onto the big screen in commercial cinema houses (even the British Board of Film Censors only allowed the DVD release in 2002). Where Lurie (undoubtedly forced by himself or others) bends to the commercial audience is by softening Amy Sumner’s (Kate Bosworth’s) horrible rape scene, replacing its excess with a moment of extreme violence to conclude Charlie’s invasion. For fans of the original it will not please and, unfortunately, for the first-time viewer of Straw Dogs the moment in question negates the well crafted, expertly timed 100 minutes before it. Why choose not to glorify violence, and then do so? In fact, regarding my aforementioned audience study, utterances of, and comparisons to, Saw were heard throughout the cinema’s screening room and hallways.
I believe there are two reasons for Lurie’s decision: (1) Kate Bosworth, and (2) he was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t. Firstly, Straw Dogs cannot exist with Kate Bosworth playing Amy Sumner, and it has nothing to do with her performance. She may not be a ‘star,’ yet she is a Hollywood name. Susan George, the original Amy, almost left production due to Peckinpah’s insistence on an even more explicit rape than what made it into the final cut. To ask Bosworth, in any way shape or form, to submit herself to such an act would more than likely set the Actor’s Guild wild, and send her running for the hills – both of which are not options as she is part of the film’s commercial draw. Secondly, as I touched on, Lurie probably would never have made another feature in Hollywood again, as the film (presumably) would never have come close in covering its loses. It’s a shame that such is the case, yet both Bosworth and the budget would have to go in order to truly remake Straw Dogs. Is it any wonder no one was willing to work with Peckinpah in his latter days (or during his heyday for that matter)?
Steering away from sex and violence, James Marsden must be applauded for stepping into Dustin Hoffman’s shoes and doing a tremendous job. Marsden’s Hollywood elitist attitude is as pretentious as Hoffman’s stuffy academic. Marsden’s mingling with the townsfolk is uncomfortable due to his Leftist, Atheist beliefs in a world that is anything but. Although it is ultimately these beliefs that end up threatening Marsden’s life, Lurie’s examination of Southern politics and religious dogma is quite scathing; Marsden handles these troublesome themes with grace, as he does while systematically dispatching his attackers at film’s end. The one flaw in Marsden’s character comes from the script, as he appears more focused on protecting Amy (Boswoth) than Hoffman’s protection of his home with the famous line “I will not allow violence against this house.” In the original there is ambivalence as to whether David even remains with (or cares for) Amy in the aftermath, yet in the remake there is no doubt as to where David’s allegiances fall.
A simple review of a storied tale does neither film justice. Yet, unlike most critics, I believe that Lurie is to be applauded even for his attempt to bring Straw Dogs to life on the big screen in 2011 (and this coming from a Peckinpah worshiper). After the film I questioned: “what was the point?” and “will it ultimately be forgotten in a month?” The point may be commercial and, yes, it will probably be forgotten with Fall’s impressive line-up and Oscar talk, yet after much reflection I believe that Lurie’s remake allows for vast discussions on film politics in general.