Straw Dogs Review

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by Chris McEneany Mar 14, 2012 at 12:43 AM

    Straw Dogs Review

    I Spit on Your Grave, The Last House on the Left, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes have all suffered the Hollywood infection/curse of the dreaded remake and, to be fair, a couple of these revamped redneck terror-tales have actually turned out to be quite good. The originals were classics of their kind and have carved their names in the pillars of cinematic controversy with censor-sickening blood. They all have issues and social accusations that were keenly relevant in the era in which they were released, but their conscience-rattling statements are just as strong and valid today, therefore revisiting them in the light of modern culture isn’t necessarily a bad thing.    

    I comprehensively reviewed Sam Peckinpah’s awesome 1971 moral-bashing adaption of Gordon Williams’ literary tale, The Siege of Trencher’s Farm, for its US BD release and, in the full knowledge that Rod Lurie’s reimagining was on the way, actually asserted that the story could possibly benefit from just such an updating. The tale is certainly still as ripe and challenging as it was back then during the drastic tail-off of the Summer of Love. Lurie, who had previously helmed 2001’s The Last Castle, had a fascination for this revered story and was determined to explore its troubling themes for himself. There’s really no reason why it shouldn’t have worked.

    Indeed, I truly hoped that a modernised take on Straw Dogs, one made for audiences that had witnessed far more excessive dramas – the advent of sensationalised stalk ‘n’ slash, home invasions, torture-porn etc – and were more media-savvy to the horrors that society was capable of inflicting upon itself in reality, would address the issues of rape, revenge, primal rage and brutally enforced territoriality with fresh eyes and a similar fearlessness to that which Bloody Sam revealed over forty years ago. Perhaps I was hoping for too much, because Lurie’s methodically rebuilt and impressively mounted take on a peaceful man being driven to acts of terrible violence by a small-minded community instilled with aggression, dark secrets and lethal passions falls far short of the debate-inciting standards that Peckinpah set. Instead, he constructs a stereotypically modern thriller that says little of the psychology of jealousy and its savage fallout, and loses practically all of the original story’s intelligence, complexity and furious moral ambiguity.

    His changes are both subtle and small, fundamental and catastrophic.  

    Lurie, who wrote the screenplay, relocates the action from the damp and bleak meadows of Cornwall to the lazy, sun-drenched bayous of the Mississippi. Recently married couple David and Amy Sumner (James Marsden and Kate Bosworth reunited after Superman Returns) leave the big city and travel deep into the South, inadvertently opening a can of worms with the locals and putting their lives in grave danger.          

    The new David is now a Hollywood screenwriter and not a mathematician, although he is still a bookworm and likes to use a blackboard to chart down the progress of his work. Amy has a successful TV show under her belt, so the previous observations about her being merely a trophy-bride who has latched onto someone of wealth and status have become null and void. The two have moved back to her rural hometown to stay in her father’s old house for a lengthy spell of peace and tranquillity so that David can pen his burgeoning screenplay. Naturally, they are going to get precious little of either.

    A liberal, bespectacled academic, David sticks out like a sore thumb on their little trips to town. The attractive and well-known Amy, however, receives admiration from all who glance her way, particularly her old boyfriend, college football hero, Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard), who clearly wishes to rekindle a never-forgotten love and to take up where he left off. Although David spots this infatuation almost right away, he is pathetically insecure and unable to put Charlie properly in his place. In turn, Charlie, who towers over the LA native, spots this failing of masculinity and seeks, by way of faux politeness and a charade of homespun bonhomie, to gradually erode the outsider’s confidence and to gain the constant upper-hand. This awkward state of affairs can only be exacerbated by the fact that the Sumners have hired Charlie and his gang of beer-swilling ne’er-do-wells to work on the roof of the barn back at the house. Day by day, David’s nerve is whittled down by the yokels’ behaviour and their attitude towards his wife, whose skimpily attired jogging sessions seem to be sending out the wrong signals to the cat-callers and the wolf-whistlers lazing about on the roof. After failing to properly chastise the men for a breach of faith, Amy’s cat is found hanging in the wardrobe. Subsequent attempts to uncover the perpetrator of the cruel deed only make things worse, ultimately driving a wedge between David and Amy. And when the gang cunningly lure David out on a bogus hunt, in another fake show of friendship, and leave him stranded in the woods, Amy is subjected to a harrowing double-rape back at the house.

    Events then spiral out of control as a local man with learning disabilities, and something of a chequered background with young girls, incurs the wrath of the town bully, ex football coach Tom Heddon (played by the great James Woods in a piece of inspired casting), and winds-up under the protection of Sumners back at their isolated house. Enraged, Tom gathers Charlie and his crew together and mounts a siege that will end in much bloodshed and murder. Throughout a long night of carnage, David will have to find the courage to fight back.

    Where Peckinpah left the explanation of the film’s title in the suspicious vapours of moral ambiguity, Lurie tells us up front what it means, hammering home the true core of the story and its message about bygone heroes bitter with the realisation that the sun has probably gone down on them forever and that the only glory they will ever encounter now is either by proxy as they cheer on the local football team, or by simply dreaming of former victories. Thus, he seems to be implying that these renegades would have gone on a rampage sooner or later, anyway, which removes a degree of the personal grudge match that will soon be set up over the prize of Amy. The sly digs at David’s expense, however, do ring true. The little jests and smirks from the gang speak volumes and certainly help to create an uncomfortable atmosphere … and one that we know is going to combust with deadly consequences for almost everyone.

    But if you are going to remake Straw Dogs, you have to know how to tackle one of the most infamous scenes in motion picture history. And, like it or not, if you muck it up, or cheapen it in any way, you’ve ruined all that follows. 

    Rape is rape, and it is never going to easy to either portray it or to sit and watch it. However, Lurie takes the easy way out by being both less explicit, which is understandable, but horribly PC about the whole affair, which is simply unforgivable in a story, such as this, that takes the theme to incredibly deep levels of profound psychology. As we all know, the rape of Amy Sumner by her former beau and a surprising visitor is the red-rag to our sensibilities. The original caused a storm when it appeared that the victim actually seemed to “enjoy” the ordeal, or at least as far as her former boyfriend’s involvement in it went. This is absolutely crucial to the story. It says as much about us as it does about Amy and her tormenters. Did she create the situation with her flirting? Does she definitely harbour feelings for Charlie, egged-on by the less masculine tendencies and perceived weakness of her husband? Most importantly, Susan George’s Amy never tells Dustin Hoffman’s David of the attack because of her conflicted emotions about it and her resentment and disappointment of him, and this is precisely the dangerous angle that Peckinpah’s presentation triumphs in – meaning that David does not fight either for her or for revenge during the climactic siege. He fights for himself and his property and his now bitterly ironic stance of holding the moral high-ground.

    In Lurie’s treatment, however, Bosworth’s Amy clearly does not invite this attack and is monumentally disturbed by it. Yet she never speaks of the event to anyone. In this astonishingly clear-cut and much simplified version, this attitude makes no sense whatsoever, and I believe that newcomers to the tale who watch this version first will be completely stunned and derailed by this narratively blasé attitude of the heroine. Here, Amy is a modern woman. She has a successful TV show, she is back in her hometown and she is able to assert her opinions upon either her husband or anyone else. Thus, this not-so-subtle modification to the assault is just plain wrong and to hear Lurie’s reasons for doing things this way – he does not agree with disrespecting women in the fashion that he believes Peckinpah so often did – should have rung alarm bells long before production of this adaptation ever took place. There are many very strong observations being made in Straw Dogs and to remove one of this magnitude just renders the plot generic, emotionally simplistic and annoyingly black and white.

    This, alone, should be enough to put admirers of the original off the scent.

    But, to be fair to this update, there is still much to commend it once you understand that the “fire” has been removed from its belly and that it strips out all moral complexity that made the original so compelling and so eternally incendiary.

    As a basic thriller, it more or less works pretty well with some solid action and suspense. Despite gritting my teeth and bemoaning the emotional changes that hamstring the power of the plot, the steady climb in tension during the first two thirds of the film is effectively wrought-about. Lurie resists the temptation to overly demonise the gang, although we do get to see poor, misunderstood Jeremy Niles (Dominic Purcell) getting smacked about by Woods’ drunken swine in a frightening outburst. The crew are a standard bunch of gun-toting, beer-slugging layabouts. They don’t seem all that bad at first, which is how the situation is supposed to begin. One or two of them are even quite likeable. Drew Powell, as the ogreish Bic, even gets to discuss films with David (“You wrote anythin’ that I might have seen?” ) But it is Skargard’s quietly intimidating presence that resonates the most. Well built and verbally stealthy, he manoeuvres David into tricky situations, goads him, albeit it pleasantly enough, and continually undermines his machismo with every breath that he takes.

    Although most of this scenario is played along a practically identical path to Peckinpah’s, Lurie throws in a cute little curve-ball that seats his version very squarely in the Bible-belt. When David tires of the traditional pre-match sermon by the confidence-boosting reverend and goes to sit in his sports car (another visual and thematic nod to Hoffman’s arrogant stranger), Charlie follows him and questions his views on religion, tapping him, politely but malevolently, about such a show of disrespect towards a man of the cloth who has spent a week preparing his speech. David, finally summoning up the courage to retaliate, pitches back with a choice commandment about not coveting thy neighbour’s wife. Clearly, Lurie is drawing up the battle-lines earlier than Peckinpah does, yet he allows the simmering rivalry to work through a few more permutations before it finally explodes. In a way this, this exchange makes us side with Marsden all the more, even if his stand comes to nought at this stage, because we now understand that he knows what Charlie is all about. Hoffman’s boffin never saw the raw lust that was circling like a shark ever closer to his wife. At least Marsden’s variation can sense the imminent threat, even if he is powerless to assert any control over its remorseless advance, and this makes him far more interesting than just a one-note pretty-boy protagonist.

    The part of the disturbed Jeremy Niles (called Henry in the original and played excellently by David Warner) is much less of an unpredictable menace than before. Once again, he is curiously courted by Tom Heddon’s promiscuous young daughter Janice (Willa Holland) – an infatuation that will land both him and Janice in dire trouble, but where we believed that Warner’s outcast was capable of losing control and actually committing vile deeds, we never once believe that of Purcell’s. So when the unthinkable does eventually happen, it is by accident, and Niles is, thus, seen in a hugely more pathetic light by us. So Lurie’s screenplay once more robs the story of its deeper meanings and dilemmas. Plus, once in the custody of the Sumners, he is pretty much forgotten about, which derails the internal friction of the home-cum-fortress and the whole ethic of protecting a defenceless man, innocent or not. Lurie just doesn’t get what made the original film so special and unique. He strips it bare of its wildness, cleaning it all up and constantly sugaring the pill. The accidental shooting of the village magistrate in the original film – the very act that pushes the gang over the edge into further depravity and leaves the Sumners fighting for their lives – is another utterly negated facet in Lurie’s determination to make random alterations. Here, when the moment comes, it is murder, pure and simple. And this reduces the gang to cold-blooded killers by choice. Lurie just cannot grasp the concepts that Peckinpah was wrestling with – fate, irony, pride and escalation. He wraps everything up much too neatly … and you can’t do that with this story.

    So, whilst all of the characters in the original film were supremely real and intrinsically human, you’ll find that absolutely none of their updated incarnations are. They are merely clichés and stereotypes masquerading as them in a handful of situations that look, on the surface at least, to be frighteningly similar.

    The whole siege mentality is also heavily brought to bear with David painstakingly researching the epic battle for Stalingrad during the Second World War. It’s a case of battering you over the head with stylistic analogy, the historical siege even coming to represent the irony of religious fervour that these hillbilly hypocrites pretend to adhere to, but I have to admit that I quite liked this tangent. David has a methodical mind that seeks strength from facts and figures, photographs and eye-witness accounts, but his spirit is weakened by the fact that he hides behind a screenwriter’s credit and can only admire violence when it is laid out like the pieces on a chessboard. The secret of his survival lies in his own notes and studies, his actions becoming a condensed version of the Russian determination and resolve not to give in to the invading forces. Marsden is actually very good, but then I’ve always liked him as an actor. I don’t mind that he is actually already a little bit more sculpted than the average cinematic bookworm … and they’ve just shoved a pair of spectacles on him to make him look even more nerdy. In this day and age, even the most equation-battering professor can often find the time to go to the gym just to keep in shape, so I’m not bothered at all by this. Going up against the bench-pressing pecs and stature of a buzz-cut Skarsgard still reveals that this David is facing his own Goliath. There are several shots of him ascending the ladder to the barn roof to talk with his nemesis, and Charlie takes thinly veiled delight in standing tall on the wooden panels above him, literally looming like a smiling giant.

    It is Amy who comes off the worst in this screenplay. Her internal struggles both with a marriage that should be imploding, as it was for Susan George’s character, and with the ferocious violation that she has suffered are cruelly sidelined or just glossed over. The dynamic of the Sumners’ relationship with one another is at least as important as how they deal with the wolves gathering outside their door … but this is obviously too complicated a concept for Lurie to develop. Here, they are merely a couple who have a spat once or twice, but who work as a team during the siege. Previously, we didn't know which way Amy would turn. She even wants to hand Niles over to the gang, so any teamwork that occurred was more by accident than design. Once again, in this take we lose a huge amount of the razor-edge tension and psychological depth that is so gripping throughout even the quieter moments in Peckinpah’s film.

    If you are going to be so slavish in following the action from the original, why skimp out on the more important and more emotional ingredients? It is as though Lurie thinks that if he captures all of the visual signatures of what came before we won’t notice how hollow the whole affair is.                     

    Lurie’s beat-for-beat approach even extends to the individual details of the violent attack on the Sumner’s house. Each character is dispatched in pretty much the same order and in the same manner. A crafty wire loop is replaced with a nail-gun, but pots of boiling water flung into the face, impromptu shotgun chiropody, various beatings, some homicidal in-group rivalry and that trusty old bear-trap are all trotted-out with clinical adherence to the dramatic carnage that so stunned audiences back in the early seventies. The use of an old record being played to add impetus to David’s retaliation is also nicely cued-up, though with much less of a dazzling effect. Lurie likes to think that he’s being clever in subverting this with a touch of musical symmetry – the same record was played during Amy’s rape and the main attacker assumes, erroneously, that this is David tipping him off that he knows what happened – but the effect just falls flat. In the original David used the record as a smarmy attack on some unwanted local guests, something that then becomes a confidence-boosting clarion-call to arms when his farm is besieged. However, the protracted set-piece feels somewhat stunted without the properly ambiguous conclusion, and even sanitised in this version, with Lurie refusing to pander to the wishes of gorehounds who may expect a little more from an update – especially one that features a snapping bear-trap – and this can only lead to a sense of dissatisfaction.

    One thing that helps the film to gain some genuine atmosphere of its own is the wonderfully dark and brooding score from Larry Groupe. He leans very consciously into Bernard Herrmann territory, making the mood intoxicating, mean and steadily rising in suspense. For me, this single element of the film is possibly its most consistently rewarding, although the Alik Sakharov’s sumptuous cinematography is delightfully traditional and engrossing.

    I found the experience of watching this misjudged remake peculiarly reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s interpretation of CapeFear. Both this and the flamboyant 1991 movie are more colourful, visually and thematically hotter, earthier and more ribald and just overblown caricatures of genuinely genre-bucking controversy-stokers. Both have unique and disturbing paths to follow yet both fail to match the power and insidious under-the-skin vitality of their firebrand forebears. In a great number of ways, both are shot-for-shot, scene-by-scene, line-by-line rehashes, albeit dressed up in sweltering colour and boasting more elaborate photography, scenery and effects-work, though both are far less pictorially risky. Neither remake comes close to matching the genius that was captured originally, though both do enough to keep you glued – if only to see how they are eventually going to come unstuck. Which both do, to be sure. But whereas Scorsese had the alarming virtuoso performance of Robert De Niro and some strikingly exaggerated set-pieces to give his remake credence and a certain justification, Lurie’s plays it safe and becomes significantly lesser than its ancestor in every single department.

    And yet … I stuck with it and even quite enjoyed it too. As a thriller, it still manages to entertain. So, temper your expectations, good or bad, and you may find that it passes the time. But that’s all it will do. You certainly couldn’t say that about the original, could you

    The Rundown

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