Let’s get the first bits out of the way; Straw Dogs is a remake and like any remake it’s all about going beyond what was established with the original and how can the basic story be improved/retooled for a newer audience. Usually I do my homework before seeing any remake however I just couldn’t find the time. So while I may have the luxury of going in unbiased I still wish I’d seen Peckinpah’s film just so I could better grade this nose-dive. While I can’t compare apples to apples for you fans of the original, beyond wondering about the necessity of this remake, I bet you’re morbidly curious to know if this is any good. Well funny you should ask because when I was asked “did you like it?” by a studio rep in the lobby I was torn; simply said, “I just don’t know” and days later I still can’t decide.
This movie has me split. I don’t hate it, but I don’t like it either. My difficulty in answering “did I like it?” comes from a mindset that in turn prompts a counter-question which is to ask “well, what can you like about a movie that pushes people to their absolute edge leaving deadly retaliation as their only means of salvation“? Straw Dogs is not about personal triumph, it’s not about struggling with adversity, it is essentially a horror film that while geared to be psychological terrifying (as opposed to a hack-n-slash approach) shows man’s inhumanity (mostly fueled by alcohol) to man…and his wife. For me, this was equal parts Fear and The Strangers but while I hate to start a review by easily, and unfairly, saying the movie in question its a mix of two other titles I’ll go into it more and evaluate the whole instead of giving a knee-jerk response/evaluation of the movie.
Successful Hollywood screenwriter David and his TV actress wife Amy return home to her family’s home so he can quietly work on his next project. Not but 5 minutes the two encounter the familiar gallery of high school alumni who decided to stick around after graduation and populate the small town of Black Water, MS. David learns that Amy used to be the arm candy of the high school quarterback Charlie (Alexander Skarsgård) and among the misfit clique of Varsity Blues has-beens he’s still the alpha male. A recent storm has brought much damage to Amy’s family’s barn and the Charlie and his goons are hired to repair it. As the story moves on Charlie finds has increasing feelings for his old flames and David continually alienates himself with his Ivy League holier than though attitude.
From there it all goes down hill as small town pettiness continues to mount and the locals don’t take kindly to how Charlie continually and obliviously insults everyone he meets. Sure he’s timid and a bit of a wuss but a Harvard educated man should have common decency plus the smarts to know there’s a lot more of them than there are of him. In fact he’s getting a whole new education replete with sayings he should pay closer attention to even if some are said in jest. The first is from his wife where she tells him “You know a lot about a lot but you don’t know shit about Southern girls and Southern Daddies“. But this one should have wised David up after he walked out of a church sermon as Charlie tells him “there’s tradition and then there’s lifestyle” implying he’s not to tread carelessly on either around Black Water. David gets more than his fair share of warnings but like any stubborn person someone eventually comes along and feels they have to teach said person (and his wife) a lesson.
As far as casting it was about as random and misplaced as was the story. Marsden comes off decent as the meek and nerdy as does Bosworth (playing Amy, his “too hot for him” wife). They take top billing and do fine with the material but the creme de la creme in the “creep” department is Alexander Skarsgård who plays the gentle giant Charlie well. He’s likable in that reserved villanish don’t cross me way but he’s still just as wooden as his True Blood alter-ego. James Woods is over the top as the alcoholic retired football coach that everyone still reveres but he starts to wear on you. Then you have Walton Goggins and Dominic Purcell and who were utterly wasted as the most they can provide here is a modern version of George and Lenny. It would have benefitted the story if they had been swapped with the lesser members of Charlie’s gang making them seem more intimidating and threatening.
I had an interest to see this as it could have been an interesting tale of just how much a person can take before he/she snaps. But for as much as you would hope would be the case, it really comes down to one thing…they were asking for it. This might have worked better as a play but as a film it’s just not very good. Marsden’s character David Sumner continually, obliviously it seemed, pissed off the locals but my bigger problem is with Hollywood and their need to regulate everyone in the South to being nothing more than drunken rednecks? Still he was only in the town because of his wife Amy but still she didn’t help things either. In fact, in one surprising scene that is less self aware but smarter than you’d give the movie credit, Amy and David have a small fight when he implies that she does bring things on to herself. If there could have been more of that this story it might have had some real weight in the long run; a real character study with an edge. Instead it was a slow boil approach that seemed like it was set to simmer until someone brought in a flamethrower to heat things up. That flash in the pan approach felt just as disorganized as the drunken yahoos attacking Amy’s house at the end of the movie and made you just want to see things end as quickly as possible.
Anyone who saw the spoiler heavy trailers should know there’s an inevitable showdown in the end of the movie but people, especially younger kids, looking for a slasher will be put off by all plodding pace to get there. This is actually a tense film that doesn’t rush anything and to me that works in its favor. But all the shock value in Straw Dogs is simply there for the sake of shock value as it didn’t really make up for the story’s weak elements, disjointed editing or help move things along. Where as someone like Aronofsky can take imagery that’ll make you want to turn away, it still comes off as artistic and deep, rife with symbolism and metaphors. Here, save for one well done but similarly vulgar scene (the attack/hunting duality sequence), the rest of it will make you want to walk into another theater in search of something more interesting. Sure you have to push the envelope as these days people are tougher to impress but, like always, don’t assume that an edgy wow factor is going to make up for a story that isn’t there…and truth be told there’s not much wow factor here either.