It’s probably a bit too early to answer that question. After all, we’ve still got 3 months left to go in the year and Roland Emmerich’s take on Shakespeare (a.k.a. Anonymous) hasn’t been released yet. So, no, Rod Lurie’s remake of Straw Dogs cannot be called the worst film of 2011 yet. Instead, it’s just the worst film so far.
Straw Dogs is a remake of the 1971 Sam Peckinpah film. In the Peckinpah film, David Sumner (played by Dustin Hoffman) is a pacifist who, upon moving to the childhood home of his wife Amy (Susan George), is repeatedly harassed by the locals until he finally takes his very brutal revenge. It’s a flawed and uneven film that still carries quite a punch. I wouldn’t say I’ve ever enjoyed watching Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs but it’s undeniably powerful film. As for the remake, Peckinpah has been replaced with Rod Lurie, Hoffman by James Marsden, and Susan George’s controversial character is now played by Kate Bosworth. None of these changes are for the better.
Lurie’s version of Straw Dogs almost slavishly follows the plot of the original. He’s made just a few changes and none of those changes are for the better. The most obvious change is that, while the first Straw Dogs took place in rural England, Lurie’s version takes place in Mississippi. It’s pretty easy to guess Lurie’s logic here. Lurie, after all, previously created the television show Commander-in-Chief in which President Geena Davis heroically struggled to save the nation from fundamentalists with Southern drawls. Lurie’s vision of Mississippi is some sort of Blue State nightmare where everyone drives a pickup truck, goes to church, cheers at football games, and makes supportive comments regarding the War in Iraq. In the original Straw Dogs, David Sumner is a truly a stranger in a strange land, an American who doesn’t realize just how out-of-place he is in rural England. In the remake, David Sumner is just a guy on vacation from the West Coast. He really has no excuse for being quite as dense as he is when it comes to not pissing off the locals. By changing the locale, Rod Lurie essentially just makes his film into yet another example of Yankee paranoia. This wouldn’t be such a problem except that Lurie seems to be taking it all so seriously. He really seems to feel that he’s making a legitimate contribution to the whole Red State/Blue State divide. Watching the film, I had to wonder if Rod Lurie truly believed that it’s impossible to get a cell phone signal in Mississippi.
The other big difference is that in Lurie’s version, David Sumner is no longer a mathematician. Instead, he’s now a Hollywood screenwriter who is apparently working on an epic screenplay about the Battle of Stalingrad. (“I figured out a way to get Khrushchev in on the action!” he says at one point.) To be honest, David’s screenplay sounds kinda boring and it’s hard not to sympathize with the “hillbilly rednecks,” (as David calls them) who ask him why anybody would want to watch his movie. (The rednecks also ask him if he thinks that God had anything do with the Battle of Stalingrad. Speaking as a nonbeliever, I have to say that this film was almost hilariously paranoid about any sort of religious belief.) Part of the power of the first Straw Dogs came from the fact that David was an academic. He was a man whose life was about theory and that made it all the more shocking to see him explode into action. It also explained his non-existent social skills, because he was, after all, the product of a very insular, intellectual existence. However, in the remake, David just becomes a condescending jerk who’s working on a screenplay for a film that most viewers would have little interest in actually sitting through. (Add to that, it was hard not to feel that this new David was just Rod Lurie’s Mary Sue.)
David is in Mississippi because it’s the childhood home of his wife, Amy. The character of Amy is problematic in both versions of Straw Dogs but, to be honest, I found her character to be even more illogical and insulting in Lurie’s remake. In the original Straw Dogs, Amy is portrayed as an idiot who flirts with every man she sees, taunts her husband to the point of violence, and (by that film’s logic) puts herself in a situation that leads to her rape. The character is, in many ways, an insulting stereotype but at least she’s a consistent insulting stereotype. The remake’s Amy is presented as being a considerably stronger character. She doesn’t openly flirt with the local rednecks, she and her husband are a lot more obnoxiously lovey dovey, and (as opposed to in the first film), it’s never suggested that she actually enjoys being raped. Kudos to Lurie for trying to make her a stronger character. Yet, at the same time, the remake’s Amy still does a lot of the same illogical things as the original Amy. The original Amy at least had the excuse of being an idiot. The remake’s Amy just comes across as being an inconsistent, poorly-concieved character. Eventually, it becomes obvious that director Lurie wasn’t trying to make Amy into a stronger character as much as he was just trying to be politically correct. (Another thing that the two Amys have in common is that neither one of them wears a bra. It made sense in the original film because the original Amy was presented as being something of a wannabe flower child. In the remake, it just comes across as Lurie’s dirty boy excuse to get a peek at Kate Bosworth’s nipples. Seriously, who goes jogging without a sports bra?)
Anyway, the remake follows the path of the original. David and Amy return to Amy’s home village where they meet Amy’s ex-boyfriend Charlie Venner (played by an amazingly hot and sexy Alexander Skarsgard). David hires Charlie and his redneck buddies to repair the roof of an old barn. Charlie, who is obviously still attracted to Amy, spends the entire first part of the movie subtly humiliating David and basically being a bully. Somebody strangles Amy’s cat. Amy says it was Charlie and his friends. David replies, “I can’t just accuse them.” Eventually, David is taken on a deer hunt by Charlie’s friends and while he’s gone, Charlie and his buddy Chris rape Amy.
(In the original it was a snipe hunt and the sight of Dustin Hoffman searching for a nonexistent creature while his wife is being raped was quite disturbing and perfectly symbolized his character’s impotence. In the remake, David is once again left alone in the woods but this time, he shoots and kills a deer and, unfortunately, James Marsden isn’t a good enough actor to let us know what that means.)
Amy never tells David that she was raped, nor does she go to the authorities. (This makes a sick sense in the original. In the remake, it just seems like an effort by Rod Lurie to degrade a previously strong woman.) The next night, David ends up sheltering the local sex pervert in his house while Charlie and his drunken friends attempt to break in. This leads to David revealing that, as opposed to being “a coward,” he’s actually as vicious a killer as everyone else in the film.
In the original version, this was a disturbing revelation if just because Sam Peckinpah emphasized not so much the killing as the fact that, as the siege progresses, David begins to enjoy the killing more and more. Once Peckinpah’s David has given into the reality that he too is an animal, you realize that it’ll be impossible for him to return to being the essentially decent man that he was before. In the original, you start out cheering David’s revenge but soon, you just want it to stop. Much like the originalTexas Chainsaw Massacre, the film is so thematically nightmarish that you end up thinking you’ve seen a lot more blood than you actually have. It sticks with you.
However, since Lurie’s remake is a film devoid of nuance or subtlety, the sudden explosion of violence on David’s part is neither surprising nor all that exciting. And since James Marsden is no Dustin Hoffman (to put it lightly), you don’t see any change in David once the violence begins. He’s not a man turning into an animal as much as he’s just a 90210 reject with a scowl on his face. He kills a lot of men but he looks oh so pretty doing it and Amy cheers him on every step of the way. (In the original, Amy was terrified of her husband’s new side. I would be too.) Since Lurie isn’t a good enough director to generate a sincere emotional response to seeing David turn into a killer, he instead lingers over all the blood and gore like a pervert struggling to catch his breath while secretly looking at a snuff website. In short, the original Straw Dogs condemned violence by pretending to celebrate it. The remake celebrates it by pretending to condemn.
Okay, you may be saying, so it’s not a great film. But is it really the worst of 2011 so far? After all, Alexander Skarsgard gives a charismatic, bad boy performance and James Woods has a few good scenes as a venomous former football coach. And director Lurie, while he may be incapable of keeping the action moving at a steady pace, does manage to make Mississippi look pretty. That’s all true but I still say that Straw Dogs is the worst movie of the year so far. Why?
Because it’s not only a remake of a film that didn’t need to be remade but it’s also a remake that was apparently made by people who don’t have a clue about what made the original an important film to begin with. It’s a film that’s gloriously unaware of its own tawdriness, a sordid mess that can’t even have fun with the possibilities inherent in being a sordid mess. Arrogantly, director Lurie invited you to compare his film to Sam Peckinpah’s by not just ripping off the film’s story (as countless other enjoyable films have done) but by claiming the title as well. It’s a film that represents Hollywood at its worst and for me, that’s why it’s earned the title of worst film of 2011 so far.
(One positive note: Perhaps this terrible, insulting remake will encourage someone to track down the original Straw Dogs and see how this story was meant to be told.)
I have not seen the new version of this film. I enjoyed your comparison of it to the original. I saw the original many years ago on network TV. While it was a late night showing, I now know that it was still heavily edited, to the extent that I didn’t really see the film.
Your analysis prompted me to re-watch the original, uncut this time. Combined with the fact that I had forgotten most of film, watching it again was a new experience.
As you mentioned, this a rather ugly film, especially for a mainstream film from that time. Among other things, it depicts two things that I hate to see in films, or anywhere else – animal cruelty, and rape. I don’t endorse censorship, but I don’t think any good comes from these things being portrayed. (I’m fine with feet being blown off with shotguns and bear traps snapping on someone’s neck.) That’s just my sensibility. Obviously, these acts are indefensible in real life, but perhaps some viewers would feel that there is some justification for their portrayal in art.
What struck me the most about this film was the complexity and qualification of almost all of the violent acts committed. The only exception is that instance of animal cruelty. None of the main characters are completely good, but none of the bad acts committed are without some provocation (not necessarily justification) and/or partly resultant from a confluence of events.
The rape is initiated by Amy’s ex-boyfriend Charlie, and once it is in progress, she begins to embrace it. Not because of the “asking for it” cliché’ (although there were some preceding scenes that implied that, wherein she was acting out in frustration to her husband’s insensitivity, further complicating the issue.) And once the other degenerate arrives and takes over, she is no longer ambivalent (to whatever extent she was with Charlie). So there is some receptiveness to Charlie’s actions, though the reasons for that are debatable.
And David is not completely likable. He is mean to the cat, and is impatient and dismissive with Amy at times, which is a contributing factor to Amy’s reaction to the aforementioned assault. So his transformation toward the end is not so much one of purely nice to cruel, but more passive to dynamic.
The situation with the sex offender Henry and the girl was rife with grayness. The girl invites him to accompany her away from the church gathering, not the other way around. He kills her, but apparently accidently, while trying to keep her from making noise and revealing their location to the search party. For her safety, so he said. Or was it just for his own? And then David harbors him in his home, giving him the benefit if the doubt, only to have him, at one point, attack Amy after escaping the room in which he has been locked. But even after that, David still risks his life to protect him. But was that compassion, or an obsession with the principle of not allowing violence against his house?
The assault on the house was motivated by the understandably distraught father of the missing (and as we knew, dead) girl. So while on one level David’s protection of Henry was admirable, who could blame a parent for wanting to get hold of the one person who knows where their child is, and likely had harmed her? So it wasn’t simply a case of homicidal hooligans attacking the nice couple.
In the midst of all this, Amy, who had no compassion for Henry, attempted to sabotage her husband’s defense of the home by letting the invaders in. To which David’s response is that he would break her neck. So even the couple was not completely allied against their attackers.
I didn’t see David’s actions as revenge. He didn’t go out and get anyone – they came in to get him, and he dispatched them in response. In this version, at least, I didn’t see David as being revealed as a killer who is as vicious as his attackers. He was defending his wife, his home, and his guest, and everything he did was in response to provocation. While he certainly acted with forceful violence, I saw the revelation as one that was more of strength than depravity. The verve with which he was infused seemed to me to be from his recognition of this strength – a sense of empowerment – as opposed to sadism. And he has also realized that his relationship with his wife is not what he thought it was. I think the final line of the film is partly reflective of all of those things – it’s a great line.
I don’t know if this presentation of the complex layers of human nature and consequences for actions originated in the book on which the film is based, or was perhaps enhanced by the screenplay writer. But it is a much more thought-provoking film than I had remembered as being.
I don’t think I will make any effort to see this most recent version of the film. Your observations confirmed some things I would have suspected from a contemporary remake. For that matter, I don’t know that I will ever watch the original again – as you indicated, it is not really an enjoyable film. But as with other films, your thoughtful analysis prompted me, in this case, to revisit it, and come away with a new appreciation of it.
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Rod Lurie: the middling-est and hacky-est of middlebrow hacks.
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