Sam Peckinpah’s original Straw Dogs caused massive controversy in the UK when it came out in 1971. Alongside Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, Peckinpah’s tale of survival and man’s inner animal didn’t sit well with the British Board of Film Classification, leading to cuts (particularly to the notorious rape scene) and even banning in the mid 1980s. It’s now a classic that remains controversial and a genuinely tough watch to this day.
Jump forward 40 years and we have writer/director Rod Lurie’s (The Contender) redundant, pointless, and almost entirely ineffective remake that takes the interesting jagged edges of the original and smoothes them out to make a predictably polished Hollywood version.
Transporting events from rural Cornwall, England to the deep American south, we follow Hollywood screenwriter David Sumner (James Marsden) and his wife Amy (Kate Bosworth) who move to her old town in Mississippi and her parent’s old house. They hire a group of local contractors to fix the barn’s tornado damage, one of which is Charlie (True Blood‘s Alexander Skarsgard), Amy’s old high school boyfriend. Tensions start to escalate as the locals start acting strange and taking advantage.
There are two main problems with the remake of Straw Dogs, the first of which is the cast. While in the original Dustin Hoffman was entirely believable as the awkward, slightly shy mathematician who is forced to come out of his shell (so to speak), it’s very hard to buy such a good-looking, Hollywood leading man like James “Cyclops” Marsden in the role. Other miscast actors who are about as believable are Skarsgard as the all-too-friendly Charlie and James Woods as a drunk protective father. It’s a big problem when the characters the film relies heavily on are so thinly drawn and miscast.
The second major issue with this particular remake is that it wants to be very much like the original in one sense, often lifting chunks straight from it, but also tries to be its own entity. It sits in this strange middle ground where it’s annoying both because it stays true to the original and changes it up at times, trying to have its cake and eat it too.
It also loses a lot of what made the original film so daring and gripping in the first place, ironing out the creases which may not have been pulled off impeccably (I certainly don’t think the original is perfect) but were what made it distinctive and memorable one way or the other. In a weird way the remake is by-the-numbers in its attempts to be dangerous, predictable in its methods of trying to be controversial (even the crucial rape scene is mishandled and ineffective). And in its manufactured ruggedness and penchant for the overblown is peculiarly ridiculous at times, something a film about such tough subject matter shouldn’t be.
Sporting a lot of the bark but none of the bite of the original, the Straw Dogs remake doesn’t work for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the constant question it begs, particularly to fans of the original – why?