It is significant, I think, that Marshall Fine is a fan of Rod Lurie‘s Straw Dogs. Partly because Fine is an author of “Bloody Sam,” a well-written book about Sam Peckinpah, director of the original 1971 version. And secondly because Fine didn’t like Lurie’s excellent Nothing But The Truth…weird.
James Marsden, Kate Bosworth in Rod Lurie’s Straw Dogs.
Lurie’s Straw Dogs “is a solid, tense drama that packs a wallop and tells its story on Lurie’s own terms,” he writes. “It’s less a remake than a new version of the story, filtered through Lurie’s vision.
“Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 film was a violent hymn to the notion of the territorial imperative: that man is inherently violent and prone to expand his territory at the expense of others, whether he needs to or not. Peckinpah celebrated the animal within, using a mathematician (Dustin Hoffman) to further demonstrate that even the mildest sort harbors a killer within.
“Lurie follows Peckinpah’s story closely, though he’s transferred the setting from rural England to the small-town American South. Yet he has made a film which, while just as violent and tense as Peckinpah’s, seems less Darwinian, if only by degree.
“In Lurie’s version, the couple, David and Amy Sumner (James Marsden and Kate Bosworth), return to her family home on the Gulf Coast in Mississippi after the death of her father. She’s the small-town girl made good, the homecoming queen who ditched the football captain to escape the South and find stardom in Hollywood. David is an amused Ivy Leaguer, a preppie who has made it as a screenwriter, who views this move to the South as though he were a sociologist studying a previously undiscovered tribe.
“The old homestead needs some repairs, so he hires a group of locals, led by Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard), who turns out to be the football star that Amy left behind. When Charlie and his roughneck crew show up, there’s obviously a yawning cultural chasm between them and David, no matter what he tries to do to be accepted.
Except, of course, that he’s always looking down his nose at them, even when he’s trying to be one of the boys. They, in turn, are cagey to the point of being predators; their Southern politesse masks a vicious passive-aggressive quality that is constantly testing the boundaries that David will allow them to cross.
“David sees himself as the civilized man, the guy who is sure that there is a rational, if not intellectual, solution to any problem. When that problem is a dead cat left hanging in their closet, subtlety would seem to go out the window.
“Lurie beautifully sets up the tension between the rednecks’ casual cruelty, David’s determined high-mindedness and Amy’s increasing frustration with David’s passivity. But he also reveals David as a man who can only be pushed so far before he makes his stand.
“And what a stand it is. This is, after all, a movie based on a book called The Siege at Trencher’s Farm and the film’s finale is every bit of that: a bloody battle with improvised weapons and a kill-or be-killed ethos. Lurie lights the fuse that leads to this explosion early on — yet even having David’s current project be a screenplay about the siege of Stalingrad isn’t enough foreshadowing for the brutality of the final confrontation between David, Amy and Charlie’s crew.
“That sequence drew squeals of outrage from sensitive moviegoers when Peckinpah’s film came out. So did a rape scene that implied a certain pleasure on the part of the victim in the original, something Lurie eliminates in this film. There’s none of that macho ‘See? She really wanted it after all’ to the assault when it happens here.
“Lurie’s film is bound to be just as controversial as Sam Peckinpah’s original for its depiction of violence. But Straw Dogs is a smart, provocative — and exceptionally intense and exciting — movie.”