Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 thriller “Straw Dogs” was an incendiary work in its time, a study on the nature of violence in man and manhood. It’s an excellent picture more appreciated than loved, a challenging film that’s nonetheless somewhat slow.
For 2011, director Rod Lurie has changed the theme, switching from an interest in man’s primal instincts to a treatise on how Southerners are cruel, superstitious, and stupid. Perhaps the former would be a bit dated in a cinematic era of torture porn, but then again, so is the latter, with its aggressive stereotyping and persistent jabs at those awful Red Staters who keep giving their electoral votes to Republicans.
Its hero is David Sumner, played in 1971 by Dustin Hoffman, now by James Marsden. Quite the shift in leading men, one that has a benefit or two but ultimately sabotages the character. Hoffman, playing a mathematician, looks an unlikely candidate to mercilessly dispatch a gang of marauding hooligans. But when he surveyed the carnage and proclaimed, “I got ’em all,” there was a catharsis and morbid satisfaction in what had just gone before.
Uttered by Marsden, it feels like a statement of fact; of course this guy won. Look at how handsome he is! He doesn’t earn his manhood, he just slaughters those buffoonish, superstitious Mississippians (filming was done in Louisiana, so the state it actively smears was deprived of any potential revenue the production would have brought).
David and his wife Amy (a bland Kate Bosworth) move to an English house in her native Blackwater, Mississippi, to get some quiet and work on his screenplay about Stalingrad. Peckinpah’s version infused the American Hoffman’s move to England with meaning by associating it with political strife at home, but Lurie’s wealthy screenwriter just wants some quiet. David 2.0’s stand is thus reduced to inane stubbornness in service of a shoddy script.
When one of the rednecks says refers to global warming and “you educated types,” Lurie shows us that he’s comfortable writing his Southerners as parodies of parodies, a leftist’s dream of distilled stupidity. The rural Englishmen of Peckinpah’s version were friendly and warm in comparison to Lurie’s Mississippians, who are uniformly hostile and rude to David from the moment of arrival. Lurie assured me himself on Twitter that he’s a great fan of the South, but if that’s true, I’d be genuinely curious to see what sort of treatment a film of his would give an area he didn’t like.
The problems go beyond the ideological. Lurie’s Amy behaves bizarrely, her provocations from the original pointlessly amped up with her logic scaled back. The rape scene, one of the most famous in cinema from the original, is stripped of its most controversial element, her seeming enjoyment of the act. Lurie makes it politically correct, though her subsequent silence about the act then makes no sense. Also mangled in translation is the subplot about a mentally disabled man that leads to the bloodbath conclusion and their reasons for sticking around at all even though it would be easy to flee the area.
Alexander Skarsgard of “True Blood” fame plays the lead redneck, speaking with a great Midwestern accent, which will serve him well should he ever star in a film set in Iowa or Ohio. James Woods hams it up as a drunken old football coach, and the fantastic Walton Goggins is effective in a tiny role that could have been excised entirely.
“There’s not anything about racism in it,” a friend told me, though I can’t say that’s accurate. The film’s one black character is also the only decent human being in the film’s Mississippi, and functions just to be slain by the villains. Lurie gets to cover his back this way, ala the Hispanic reporter dropped into the middle of the most recent MSNBC Republican debate in order to ask questions about immigration. The left’s amazingly comfortable with minorities when they’re used as props to put emphasis on the despicability of their political enemies.
To Lurie’s credit, he does resist the temptation to have every character covered in three layers of fake sweat ala “A Time to Kill.” The finale, a rather brutal piece of violence, is shot and edited with more visual pizazz than I would have expected from the director of “The Contender.”
With “Straw Dogs,” Lurie found his vessel to enact a gruesome revenge on his perceived inferiors, those “uneducated” buffoons that don’t think his way, believe his way, or vote his way, disguised as a remake of a controversial film that absolutely no one asked for. Despite the politically correct changes, the film ends up more vulgar than its source material, as it represents a gruesome revenge fantasy wherein one American righteously exterminates his ideological foes on another side of the country.