Sam Peckinpah's 1971 classic, Straw Dogs, gets the Hollywood remake by the excellent critic turned director, Rod Lurie. The original was a sensation, violent and disturbing. I am happy to report that this adaptation, despite a few issues, lives up to the first film and is equally provocative. James Marsden, in his finest performance yet, stars as Hollywood screenwriter David Sumner. He and his beautiful wife, Amy (Kate Bosworth), decide to return to her hometown of Blackwater, Mississippi. The town is another world for the glamorous couple, especially when they run into Amy's high school sweetheart, the hulking Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard). David decides to hire Charlie and his friends to fix the roof on their dilapidated farm house. This turns out to be a big mistake. Charlie and his gang begin to harass the couple. Soon their actions become horrific and violent, forcing David and Amy to react in ways they never imagined.
I've heard the term 'slow boil' used to describe this film and I agree it is an excellent analogy. From the first frame, their is a sense of uneasiness. Foreboding doom builds as the characters interact. Charlie's lust for Amy has not abated. You can see the disgust in his eyes when he sees her with David, who he considers weak and puny. David also tries to fit into the Southern ways, but is spectacularly out of place, no matter how hard he tries. Amy is caught in the middle. She senses danger, and despite her best efforts to warn David, fails to convince him of their situation. Her character takes the blount of the agression, marking the turning point for all in the plot.
The original film was set in the English countryside with the backdrop of the Vietnam war. Lurie has updated to the backwoods South, easy targets for Hollywood always. The primary flaw of the film is how cookie cutter the locals are. It's the same hillbilly, pickup truck driving, confederate flag waving, critter hunting rednecks that are standard foils. Charlie's gang could have been taken out of any film and transplanted here. Ony Charlie has motivation and subtext, thin as it may be. His behavior / actions are key to progressing the story, but is so one-note, it seems buffoonish. I have no doubt someone like him is capable of doing what he does, the character just needed a bit more to not be generic.
Lurie does have several elements that work in building tension. The first is the relationship of the couple. James Marsden and Kate Bosworth are very good here. As highbrow, intellectual people, they sell the fish out water concept. They also react accordingly when events begin to escalate. Amy demands action from David, but as an peaceful rational person would do, he draws back because he believes everyone is as thoughtful. The transformation of David is what sells Straw Dogs. The tag line for this movie is 'everyone has a breaking point'. David will protect his wife and house. Other critics who saw the same screening I did, thought his reaction was exaggerated, unrealistic. I disagree, I buy the idea of snapping, of reaching the point where all civility is gone, and life or death instincts take over.
It's well known what happens to Amy and David, as the first film caused quite a stir. I allude, but avoid giving specific plot details because it does take away from the film. I recommend avoiding all spoilers and going in cold. The savagery of the climax, and other scenes, are jarring and thought provoking. Straw Dogs is most certainly not the feel good film of the year. Lurie doesn't miss a step capturing the hard elements. He would have had a tremendous film if the ancillary characters and Charlie were better visualized. So Straw Dogs has its flaws, but is a visceral experience and definitely worth seeing.