Thursday, 7 March 2013

Lacking bite : Straw Dogs

Straw Dogs

Have you ever been to the Edinburgh Fringe?  Every year in August, Edinburgh plays host to the world’s biggest and best Arts festival.  There’s the cream of comedy, music, theatre (lots of theatre), dance, mime, opera, circus all vying for your attention over the course of a (normally) wet Scottish Summer. 

This year’s crop of Cambridge Footlights will try desperately to get a TV contract, some Hollywood star will get back to his theatre roots man, by directing a small play above a Leith pub.  And every year, American high schools will send their theatre programmes over to stage a show.  Sometimes it’s Mamet (Speed The Plow and Sexual Perversity In Chicago being favourites), often it’s Shakespeare (you’ve never seen Macbeth until you’ve seen him played by a teenager from Nebraska) but usually it’s Death Of A Salesman.  Usually they’re quite good.  Once you get past Willy Loman being a good-looking, toothy 17-year-old.  40 years after the release of Sam Peckinpah’s classic Straw Dogs, film critic-turned-film director Rod Lurie gives us a defanged remake which looks and feels like an American high school production starring a bunch of good-looking, toothy young things. 

David and Amy Sumner (James Marsden & Kate Bosworth) return to her small town in the Deep South after her father’s death.  He’s a timid Hollywood screenwriter and she’s the local gal made good; the cheerleader who went off to Hell-A and became a famous actress.  Moving into her dad’s farm, tensions soon escalate when David hires Amy’s childhood sweetheart Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard) and his buddies to fix the barn roof. 

Former football heroes whose glory days are long behind them, Charlie and his buddies harass and intimidate the young couple as they try to fit in with small-town life.  When Amy is brutally raped by Charlie and one of his men and David shelters the injured, mentally disabled Niles (Dominic Purcell) who may have accidentally killed town bully Coach Heddon’s teenage daughter, the conflict with the locals escalates as they lay siege to the farm, demanding they surrender Niles and intent on killing anyone who gets in their way.  If David and Amy are going to survive they’re going to have to fight back…

Despite making an almost scene-for-scene remake of the original, Lurie’s Straw Dogs lacks bite.  Gone is the queasily uncomfortable, moral ambiguity of the original, replaced instead by a white-is-white certainty.  Shifting the action from the original’s windswept, desolate Cornwall to America’s Deep South does nothing for the film.  Charlie and his gang are caricatured, boo-hiss, Southern Gothic villains you’ve seen a dozen times.  From the word go, they’re a bunch of swaggering, slavering, Bible-thumping redneck bullies and rapists so it’s not a huge surprise when they go on the rampage.  But they’re not racist, no sir.  Even when they kill the town’s black sheriff (Laz Alonso) it’s just because he’s in the way, nothing to do with the colour of his skin.  It’s strange that in a film which portrays America’s Southerners as rape-happy, murdering, disabled-hating, cat-killing, vigilante thugs that the greatest taboo should be suggesting that they might not like black folks.

While the action is competently staged (apart from a frankly laugh-out-loud coup de grace involving a bear trap that echoes the original film) and the performances are decent enough, watching this Straw Dogs just reminds you how good the original was and makes you wish you were watching that instead.  It genuinely feels like an American high school am-dram production.  Everyone’s too good-looking. 

James Marsden’s hunky scriptwriter with the actress trophy wife shares only his character’s name with the Dustin Hoffman’s weedy, maths nerd in the original.  Marsden was one of the X-Men for God’s sake.  We know he’s only going to take so much before opening up a can of whoop-ass.  And he’s never ambiguous the way Hoffman’s David was.  In the original it was always left unresolved who killed Amy’s cat; Peckinpah dropping enough clues to suggest that it might have been the emasculated, passive David.  Marsden’s David is however a hero in waiting.  While Hoffman gave into the darkness inside him and found pleasure and an aggressive assertion of his masculinity in the film’s climactic violence, Marsden’s just doing what a man’s gotta do. 

The bad guys are all quite pretty too.  Even the fat one.  And let’s face it, if you absolutely had to spend time in a prison cell with another man, wouldn’t you want that man to be Alexander Skarsgard?  Please note: at no time am I condoning Skarsgard’s behaviour in the film or implying that being raped by Skarasgard wouldn’t be unpleasant.  All I’m saying is he’s not an ugly man.  They’re all just too darn good-looking and young.  The only person in the film who isn’t is James Woods as the sadistic Coach Heddon.  And even he’s pretty hot compared to the original’s Peter Vaughn (Grouty in Porridge).  Increasingly, Woods seems to be turning into a caricature of himself and watching him in this is reminiscent of his guest spot years ago in The Simpsons.

The worst thing, the absolute worst thing, about this remake of Straw Dogs is (sharp intake of breath, stage whisper) it’s not that bad!  It’s kinda ok.  Pretty good even.  If you’ve never seen or even heard of the original.  It passes two hours, it builds tension nicely, the script’s a little unsubtle but the action is well-staged and brutal.  But it’s just not Straw Dogs.

It does however feature a hilarious opening scene where a deer does a double-take right before being shot by Charlie and his bestest buddies on a hunting trip.  That deer is worth the price of admission alone.

David Watson

Rod Lurie (based on the film by Sam Peckinpah)
James Marsden, Kate Bosworth, Alexander Skarsgard, James Woods, Dominic Purcell, Walton Goggins, Laz Alonso, Willa Holland
Running time
110 minutes

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