Judge Gordon Sullivan prefers straw elephants.
Some fights you can't walk away from.
Sam Peckinpah's original 1971 Straw Dogs was and remains a total mess. Its pacing is weird, its acting broody but awkward, its apparent anti-violence stance undermined by its own spectacular camerawork—and that's precisely what I love about it. The film is nowhere near as wonderful as Peckinpah's previous classic The Wild Bunch, nor as easy to love as the bizarre mess of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. No, Straw Dogs is a bastard stepchild in the work of a man who did very little but make bastard stepchildren (at least to Hollywood's way of thinking). That puts it at the bottom of the list of Peckinpah films I would thought would get the remake treatment, but almost forty years to the day after the original premiered, we get a star-studded remake. Because Straw Dogs (2011) is the second time around for this premise, we get a lot of the grit wiped away. It leaves a clean movie, but that doesn't make it more interesting.
Facts of the Case
This Straw Dogs transfers the action from Cornwall to Mississippi, where L.A. screenwriter David Sumner (James Marsden, Enchanted) is taking his wife (Kate Bosworth, Blue Crush) back to the small town she grew up in. The barn next to her childhood home was damaged in a hurricane, and former flame Charlie (Alexander Skarsgård, True Blood) gets the contract to rebuild. When his attentions become a bit too much, Sumner has to defend what's his.
The new Straw Dogs isn't a remake that takes the premise of the first film and grafts new concerns on it (like The Fly or Carpenter's The Thing). Nope, it's part of that recent crop of remakes that has been made to cash in on the name or reputation of a previous film. I can't fault the filmmakers for that.
I also can't fault the filmmakers for their casting choices. They populated the film with a series of excellent actors. I don't think James Marsden will be remembered quite as fondly as Dustin Hoffman in a few decades, but he brings the same kind of wrong-note casting to the role that Dustin did back in 1971. He acts like David isn't really un-macho, but is playing the role of a guy who thinks he's supposed to be un-macho. Kate Bosworth brings a strength and vulnerability to her role that's equally impressive. Much like the original, her character here isn't given that much to do other than be something the men can fight over, but she does it well. Alexander Skarsgård fills out the trio of main roles with a "aww-shucks" charm that hides a whole pile of menace. Fans of True Blood might see Eric Northman a little differently after this picture.
More impressively, Straw Dogs has great actors in the smaller roles. James Woods is hilarious as an alcoholic football coach who likes to yell and curse in a great accent. Although it's getting tired casting him as the crazy redneck whenever someone needs a laugh, Walter Goggins delivers the goods here.
I can't really complain too much about this DVD either. The 2.40:1 anamorphic transfer is solid, with good color saturation and great black levels during night time scenes. No digital artifacts or other compression problems mar the picture. The audio is similarly strong, with the 5.1 track delivering a decent amount of directionality during some of the more intense scenes and the dialogue is always clean and clear from the center channel.
Extras start with a quartet of featurettes. The first looks at the process of remaking a "classic," which is a pretty dubious word to apply to the original Straw Dogs. The second looks at the actors, mixing interviews with them with on-set footage. The third looks at how the final siege was created, while the last tackles the design of the Sumner house. The other extra is a commentary with writer/director Rod Lurie. He mixes his interpretations of the character with production stories and technical info. He talks some about Peckinpah as well, and compares their films.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Straw Dogs is one of the most unnecessary remakes I've seen yet. Not because it's bad, but because it takes everything even remotely interesting about a so-so film and makes it slick and polished instead. Oh, and the reprehensible rape scene is still there. Rod Lurie is quick to point out that "Amy won't smile in my rape scene," and she gets beaten a little less, but what Lurie and his fellow filmmakers don't understand is that it was precisely the wanton violence and weird tension of moments like the rape scene in the original that made it worthwhile. I'm not for wholesale rape scenes and violence against women, but at least in Peckinpah's original, there's something to talk about, something to get angry about when Amy gets beaten and then maybe-sorta-kinda (pretends to?) enjoy herself. It's messed up and it's weird, and it gets people talking. The new Straw Dogs has a rape scene just like the original does, and it's still paired with David learning to hunt, but the decreased violence of this version makes it somehow worse, like this scene is just a normal scene like any other. That's the big issue with Straw Dogs—it's a by-the-numbers remake that adds nothing new, while removing the things that made the original worth remaking.
Producer Marc Frydman calls the original Straw Dogs "the perfect frame for a remake" because the story is about a man (David) who must be violent against his essentially non-violent personality. Frydman claims that for the character of David, the film is a tragedy—"a triumph but also a tragedy." If he was talking about the original I'd agree with him, but there's very little sense of the tragic at the end of this film. One of the reasons that the original Straw Dogs can be defended to this day by fans is the fact that Dustin Hoffman's David finally gets to be a "man" and we see the awful price of that fact. The awful price is not the destruction of the house, it's the dawning realization on Hoffman's face in his final shots of the film. Those moments in the original are devastating, and they aren't replicated here. Instead, we get wholesale destruction in place of emotional devastation.
Straw Dogs is a zombie film. No, there are no walking dead. It's like someone reanimated the corpse of Peckinpah's 1971 film, but without an essential spark. Maybe fans of the actors will enjoy this exercise in reanimation, but casual moviegoers won't appreciate the violence, and Peckinpah fans won't want to stomach the desecration of a flawed-but-interesting film.
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