Straw Dogs is a remake of the 1971 Sam Peckinpah thriller of the same name. Writer / Director Rod Lurie offers up an updated version of the story of a man pushed to survive a siege on his home. While the original version was a testament to its maverick director’s no holds barred style; Lurie’s screenplay will undoubtedly garner much less controversy despite the uncomfortable misogynistic violence and action.
Screenwriter David Sumner and his actress wife Amy return to her hometown of Blackwater, MS for a creative retreat. Despite David’s best efforts to make nice with the locals he is viewed with contempt and derision. After hiring his wife’s ex-boyfriend to repair his roof David finds the men, the Straw Dogs, are too casual with their work and with his amenities for his taste. As tensions mount the intrusions on David and Amy’s home become more horrifying. After David tries to protect a mentally handicapped man from the gang they lay siege to his home and force David and Amy to fight back in order to survive.
Peckinpah’s original film was set in England but Lurie’s version has a distinctly American look and feel. The Southern setting is sultry and humid; the score is melodramatic; and the direction is capable. These elements work together to give the film a smoldering, uneasiness throughout the first act. When the drama is ratcheted up in the second act the pace quickens as the characters begin to shape. It’s in the third act that the tension finally explodes in a frenzy of action that moves quickly and comes to a conclusion that is a bit over the top.
While the violence and tension generate the most focus. The town locals are fairly one-dimensional. This helps makes them seem more intimidating but doesn’t allow the audience to connect with their perspective. In fact, several of the secondary characters are very thin. They act as caricatures of Southern redneck good ol’ boys. Their insincerity is blatant and you can see that they are capable of horrific acts. In this regard Straw Dogs is reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear in terms of feel and tension. But it severely lacks the depth of character needed to make the villains truly terrifying.
Straw Dogs also attempts to pull off a character study, albeit a very small one, of David and Amy’s relationship. As played by James Marsden and Kate Bosworth, the leads have a few scenes that hint at strain in their relationship. It isn’t out front but they clearly have differing views on how to handle adversity. But when push comes to shove the two seem to switch views as evidenced by their behavior during the final act. The switch is subtle but it makes their actions more dramatic and cathartic.
Bottom line: Overall Straw Dogs is an uncomfortable, violent movie that isn’t suitable for everyone. The violence is at times brutal and very uncomfortable while at other points it can be downright comic; even garnering some laughs from the preview audience that the filmmakers certainly didn’t intend. Straw Dogs is mildly entertaining but it’s difficult to overcome its shortfalls.