Director Rod Lurie’s previous claim to fame before he became a filmmaker was his controversial career as a film critic, which makes sense given his blatant lack of understanding of Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. Boiling the plot down to its most-superficial moments is quite the cinema crime, especially when the original is routinely hailed as a cinematic masterpiece. Peckinpah’s essay on pent-up aggression amidst a crumbling marriage has been sweetened with smiles and given a hot, steamy overhaul that confuses its sexual violence. While it could absolutely be worse (most movies could), the Straw Dogs remake paints a depressing picture of what Hollywood deems most necessary: in are the sex and violence, out is anything that’s too thematically challenging.
The plot follows married couple David and Amy (played by James Marsden and Kate Bosworth, respectively), who head off on a vacation to Amy’s old stomping grounds so that David can focus on his work as a Hollywood screenwriter. This change from the nerdy profession of the original (in which the main character was a mathematician) allows Lurie to drop a few references to the Saw films, perhaps in an attempt to court the same slasher audience. Nevertheless, the two make their way to the Southern backwoods, and before you know it, encounter Charlie (played by True Blood’s mostly bare-chested Alexander Skarsgard) and his cronies, who, as it turns out, are the crew slated to fix the roof of a barn on the property where they are staying. As they do, things become complicated when it is revealed that Amy and Charlie were high-school sweethearts. Thanks to some mild class warfare, the drama escalates in a siege on the house from the hicks, with David stepping up to the plate of finally becoming a man through violence.
If you thought the two things missing in Peckinpah’s film were football and God, then you are in luck, since they both feature heavily here for quite muddy reasoning. Religion stands in as one reason the Bible-loving backwoods crew dislike David, who has been written here as an atheist. This dichotomy clumsily stands in for Dustin Hoffman’s subtle condescension of the lower-class workers in the original. Here, Marsden is boiled down to just a nice, meek guy, which does nothing to help sell the drama in the marriage, nor the struggles between the men. Bosworth handles the material well, but comes off far less fearless than her predecessor, Susan George, did four decades earlier. Skarsgard is one of the biggest missteps of the production, as his statuesque good looks throw things so off-kilter that it threatens to become a love triangle between David, Amy, and Charlie. Production-wise, the picture is slick, although the finale is hobbled by nervous camerawork and extreme low lighting.
To unseasoned viewers, Straw Dogs might be a convenient waste of time starring their favorite cable-TV hunk, yet its resonance will not go much farther than that -- and frankly, for that to be the case for a film featuring such a brutal rape scene is almost a crime. Hollywood made the film when it did because it could bank on hot stars and the climate was right for remaking taboo-breaking cinema (see 2009’s The Last House on the Left and 2010’s I Spit on Your Grave). With so much taken away from the source material and nearly nothing of worth added, the film just becomes a sensational pulp thriller. Like many remakes, Straw Dogs will be forgotten, but the Hollywood culture which produced it unfortunately will continue to badly retell yet more beloved tales.