Sam Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs,” released forty years ago, is perhaps the most thematically confused thriller ever made. On the surface, it’s a standard fish-out-of-water/revenge story: a stuffy professor, David (Dustin Hoffman) and his lithe, blonde, British housewife Amy (Susan George) are tormented by hooligans—including Amy’s ex-boyfriend—when they move back to her rustic England hometown. At first, these roughnecks, who have been hired to renovate the couple’s house, are just leering and ornery, but as David’s blue-blooded arrogance begins to bristle at them, they become increasingly vicious, killing the couple’s cat and gang-raping the wife. Eventually, the couple triumphs over their enemies, in a blood-soaked, “Wild Bunch”-style finale. But Peckinpah infuses all this with a paradoxical, cautionary set of morals—some of them pacifist, some angrily misogynistic—and it’s his scatterbrained, clashing ideas, not the violence, that makes “Straw Dogs” such a chilling experience.
Defending the film against detractors, Peckinpah has said that “Straw Dogs” is a parable on how primitive urges spur even the meekest men to violence. However, the film simultaneously condemns those very meek men—particularly the intellectual sort—for not resorting to violence soon enough; Peckinpah purports to hate machismo while reveling in it. To make matters foggier, Peckinpah doesn’t spare women the whip, either, essentially scolding them for any showing of sexual forthrightness. “Straw Dogs” is crude enough to not only showcase a double rape scene, but to imply that one of the rapists—Amy’s ex—actually reignites her feelings towards him. Amy never tells her husband, who earlier accused her of being too provocatively dressed and flirty in front of her ex, because she’s afraid it will offset his jealousy. Weirdly enough, Peckinpah pushes the entire rape sequence to the background, never resolving it. He seems to despise Amy’s behavior as much as the rapists’, as if to say, “This is what you wanted all along.”
Even without these touches of misogyny and nihilism, “Straw Dogs” is beset with unpleasantness. The husband and wife barely like each other, there’s not a single sane person in the entire town, and even David’s so-called moral rectitude comes out in wrongheaded ways—he’s not protecting his shell-shocked wife during the film’s climax, but rather a pedophile and accidental murderer whom the angry hoodlums want to tear apart limb from limb.
Surprisingly, and to his credit, director Rod Lurie’s new remake of “Straw Dogs” does not dispense with Peckinpah’s maddening ambiguities. He hasn’t made the husband and wife more affectionate towards each other, or united them in any way because of her being victimized; their rapport is just as chilly. In the climax, the husband’s violence, while sadistically fun to watch—the audience howled with joy as the “badguys” are scalded, shot with nailguns, and impaled on bear traps—doesn’t culminate in any significant “victory” for the couple. The film ends on the same doom-laden note as in the original, and Lurie is bold for not softening the material—especially its treatment of the wife’s character, given the spate of ass-kicking female-centered movies released by Hollywood each year.
But unfortunately, because the first half of Lurie’s remake does contain many changes and updates, his sudden faithfulness to the original version midway through simply doesn’t work. It only makes the characters’ capricious decisions—or rather, their indecisiveness at vital times—seem dumber and more forced. Somehow, we could accept the pint-sized, lily-livered Hoffman character as the type of ugly American that would provoke larger, more instinct-driven English goons. But here, David is not a professor but a Hollywood screenwriter, and he and his wife (an actress, whom he met while working on a TV pilot) don’t relocate to England but to her hometown in Mississippi (all-too-fittingly called Blackwater).
This is Lurie’s first crucial mistake. Would a screenwriter, even a moderately successful one, act this blatantly condescending towards the common folk of Blackwater? Given the cruel hierarchy of the Hollywood system (it’s producers, not screenwriters, that supposedly have all the power and flaunt it), wouldn’t he know enough about struggles, about feeling small, to refrain from saying such belittling things to a bunch of poor, impulsive rednecks? On the other hand, would all rednecks really loathe someone from the film industry so wholeheartedly, on first glance? Surely some of them would feel excited, or welcoming, in ways a bunch of British ruffians would not feel towards an American professor. And more glaringly, the actor James Marsden, who plays David, isn’t a shrimp at all; in fact, if he took off his glasses and Harvard shirt and shaved his curly locks, he’d look practically indistinguishable from the good ol’ Southerners that are supposed to be his nemesis. The fish-out-of-water angle feels forced and inaccurate here.
More off-puttingly, Lurie has turned Amy’s character from a bored, bird-brained bimbo into a rather sharp, independent woman. In the original version, when David refuses to confront the construction crew about killing the cat and instead goes hunting with them, to put them at ease and prove his manhood, it made sense for Amy to scold David about his cowardice, while remaining too dim to confront the cat-killers herself. Here, it just doesn’t fly that Amy (as played with sullen intelligence by Kate Bosworth) wouldn’t think to take the dead cat matter into her own hands. In keeping so closely with Peckinpah’s story, Lurie winds up shoving Amy, who he initially strengthens, far into the background, which makes the story’s conclusion both uglier and more false than in the original.
Lurie also uses every broad stereotype in the book to characterize the Blackwater residents, from the “These colors don’t run” bumper stickers on their pick-up trucks to the hillbilly butt-rock blasting out of their speakers. (In the same vein, David is always blasting classical music; when he starts rising up against his tormentors, he takes a shine to the same country rock they love. Oh, what symbolism!)
Lurie’s sole innovation is to make James Woods’ character a once-glorious football coach turned scabrous town drunk, and to make Amy’s ex-boyfriend, Charlie (Alexander Skarsgård, a shoe-in for Ryan Gosling) a former star player. Unlike in Peckinpah’s film, these two characters are treated with some degree of pathos, portrayed as past winners now relegated to be losers, and threatened by Marsden’s success. Lurie even tries to bring out Charlie’s soft side during the rape scene; the second rape is now staged off-camera as Charlie watches, horrified, regretful for a moment about what he’s done. But the football subplot is really just a stylistic excuse to shift a pivotal scene–the town pedophile (Dominic Purcell) accidentally kills a lustful underage girl—from the forest to underneath the bleachers of a stadium. And Woods is thoroughly wasted, called on to scream and froth at the mouth as he spouts constant death threats against Purcell.
By modernizing the story in some patches, and keeping it exactly the same in others, Lurie winds up with an even more unfocused movie than Peckinpah’s, and without the frightening rage. As a result, the final showdown is pure camp, destroying any depth that preceded it. Some scenes retain the same queasy bitterness of the original, but generally, most of Peckinpah’s plot twists seem distractingly inconceivable this go-round. With its drab acting and corny jump-cuts, “Straw Dogs” is more often foolish than suspenseful. Sadly, it will likely make fans of the original turn away from the franchise altogether.