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By Ryan Mason · September 19, 2011
After I saw the original Straw Dogs by the late, great Sam Peckinpah, I never once remember thinking to myself, “I can’t wait to watch that one again.” And I never did. It was a solid piece of filmmaking, no doubt, one that didn’t just entertain you; it manipulated you. Arguably, it wasn’t entertaining in a traditional sense, but it was gripping, made you feel something, and was effective in its brutal violence. All of these make it the classic that is revered today as a piece of bona fide, 1970s-era filmmaking. But as for repeat watchability… let’s just say this isn’t something you pop in casually on a Saturday night.
So naturally, they remade it. Because if I don’t want to even see the original multiple times, why in the world would I want to watch Straw Dogs: Special True Blue X-Men Blood Crush Edition? I wouldn’t, except this review wouldn’t go watch it and write itself for me, so I had to.
I just don’t get why this film even exists. Was there a large following of Straw Dogs fans that were clamoring for a redux that I didn’t know about? It’s not like it’s some universally well-known established property that Hollywood could cash in on. It’s not like it had some good-at-the-time special effects that could’ve used updating to make it more effective to desensitized, modern audiences.
It’s probably pointless to ask, so, since it’s here, let’s see how it turned out compared to Peckinpah’s version. First off, you can’t talk about Straw Dogs without talking about the infamous rape scene, so I might as well get it out of the way now. Quickly, in case you haven’t seen the original and don’t know what this remake (which is quite faithful to the source material as far as plot goes) is about, here’s a quick recap: David Sumner (James Marsden) and his wife, Amy (Kate Bosworth), move into her family’s old house in Blackwater, Mississippi after her dad dies. David’s a Hollywood screenwriter working on a WW2 flick while Amy is an out-of-work actress. They hire Amy’s high school sweetheart, Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard), and his crew to fix the roof on the garage – who end up being total creeps who take pleasure in David being completely out of his element. Then a bunch of stuff happens and there’s a huge assault on David and Amy’s house by Charlie, his crew, and Coach Heddon (James Woods), which ends in multiple gruesome deaths. It’s like a fish-out-of-water story where the fish learns how breath air and slaughters those who laughed at him trying to suck oxygen.
So back to the rape scene. It shocked audiences 40 years ago by manipulating people – mainly the men – into feeling both turned on and disgusted by what they were seeing on screen, which made them feel guilty. It also insinuated that Amy, played then by Susan George, was actually enjoying the violation at one point. Certainly not your typical Hollywood fare and, as you’d expect, the Lurie version goes for a tamer route. Instead of pinning the discomfort and awkwardness on us in the audience, Lurie places it on Charlie, instead. It works in the sense that they’re trying to make Charlie a more conflicted character – he’s definitely not a good guy, but he’s also not pure evil. An admirable intention of the filmmakers, but when put up against the original, it falls flat in terms of its affect on the audience.
Of course, that scene alone doesn’t break Straw Dogs 2k11. What does however is that things feel so pointless and unmotivated. First off, and probably most importantly, David and Amy don’t need to be in this Podunk town. Sure, Amy wants to fix up her family’s estate and all, but David’s loaded. He’s a successful TV and movie writer who owns a $100,000 vintage, two-seater Jaguar roadster that they apparently drove across country (that had to be comfortable). Money’s no object for him, as evidenced when he throws down a cool Benjamin on the bar and invites everyone to drink on him. Or when he fires Skarsgard’s Charlie and his team of redneck carpenters by paying them $5,000 without bothering to haggle whatsoever, considering they literally had done nothing to the roof after two weeks of work. Last time I checked, you could hire a roofer from out of town.
And then the rest of the conflicts come because, basically, the characters are stupid. Amy goes for a jog wearing short-shorts and a tank without a bra, passing by Charlie and his crew who all leer at her. She complains to David who essentially blames her, saying that she’s inviting the ogling by dressing like that. Fair conflict. So, what does Amy do? She flashes the entire roofing crew, escalating the already thick-as-peanut-butter sexual tension between her and the roughnecks. That’ll solve the problem!
And then when Amy intervenes at a town gathering when Coach senselessly attacks a mentally handicapped man – who apparently had some inappropriate run-in with a girl in the past – David pulls her away and she gets mad at him again. She says someone needed to do something, glaring at him to imply, with the subtlety of a brick falling on one’s head, that that someone should’ve been David. Why David versus, I don’t know, anyone else who was standing around who might actually know the situation better than the guy from LA who just got into town? No idea. Clearly it’s all trying to play into the notion that David is this coward (like he was in the original), but this time it doesn’t work. Because he’s not acting cowardly: he’s being sensible. Why run next to a bunch of meatheads in skimpy outfits if you don’t want to risk being gawked at? Why live in this town if you could afford to live elsewhere more happily while still paying someone to fix the house? And what’s the point in trying to break up a fight started by the local drunken football coach? It’s lose-lose. It doesn’t make what the meatheads and Coach were doing, but their reactions didn’t help any. Like the original, this film brings up that question of what do you do? It’s an interesting one and apparently Lurie’s answer is similar to that of Peckinpah’s.
Kill ‘em all.
The savage ending retains the brutality from the original but doesn’t feel earned this time around since we never quite buy that David is this weakling who can’t man up when the time arises. (Perhaps this has to do with casting, as Marsden might be quite a bit shorter than his adversary Skarsgard, but he’s no wimp. The dude’s an X-Man, after all.) Where Lurie’s film achieves the same success as its predecessor is here in the finale: when most films show the helpless characters rise up and fight off the attackers, usually ending in death for the hunter not the hunted, the survivors then embrace with a sense of relief and finality that it’s over. Whew. They’ve lived. They’ve made it. But, not in Straw Dogs.
Like the original, this one doesn’t leave you feeling good about anything. In this, you’re not relieved that David and Amy resorted to brutal violence to stay alive and to protect their sense of justice (by going totally vigilante, which is exactly the sort of thing they were fighting against). Afterward you’re thinking, “Dude, you just KILLED some guys! Like, seriously killed them, way dead.” Not that we cared about the no-longer-living all that much: they were all pretty rotten human beings. But we do care about David and Amy enough that we realize that these characters aren’t like other Hollywood survivors who will seemingly go on to be normal people after this ordeal. This isn’t something they’re going to walk away from. In fact, I highly doubt they’ll remain a couple after this, to be honest. And it doesn’t make us feel all that great about anything we’ve just seen.
It’s not an ending you’ll find very often in a mainstream Tinseltown flick, so I applaud the filmmakers for keeping true to the original in this way. Unfortunately, it still doesn’t give this film any reason for being. Long story short: stick to the original, if you must.