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The 1972 version of Straw Dogs is the kind of movie that’s admirable, but tough to enjoy. It’s just not a fun movie experience, and its 2011 remake — directed by Rod Lurie — isn’t much more fun. Lurie’s version is actually a good film; it’s well-shot, well-acted, and very suspenseful. But I never want to see it again—ever. It’s disturbingly violent, and very bleak from beginning to end. But the message of the film is as powerful as it was back in 1972: Violence is bad, but if you push a man too far, he’ll do what he must to defend himself.
David and Amy Sumner (James Marsden and Kate Bosworth) are happily married and important cogs in the Hollywood machine (he’s a writer, she’s an actress). They return to Amy’s hometown in Mississippi for an extended stay, which David’s hoping will inspire him to finish his latest screenplay.
While they’re home, they recruit Amy’s old friend, Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard), and his pals to redo the roof on Amy’s barn. Immediately, however, Charlie and David politely clash. Charlie’s Southern values don’t mesh well with David’s Harvard ways, and when it comes out that Charlie is, in fact, an old flame of Amy’s, the polite barbs toward one another become hostile. And that’s only the beginning.
There’s a whole separate storyline involving high school football, the town’s old coach (James Woods), and a gentle but mentally challenged man (Dominic Purcell) who covets the coach’s daughter. It’s a subplot that frustrates, mainly because it’s so obviously a device to bring the film to its conclusion. But it’s such a rousing conclusion that it’s an easy sin to forgive.
The first two-thirds of Straw Dogs are also great. The cat-and-mouse game between David and Charlie burns slowly, but the tension that builds is palpable. What’s especially interesting is that David is not a faultless individual. He disrespects these men and their way of life on more than one occasion. He’s also condescending and flaunts his money. But he certainly doesn’t deserve what happens to him.
Straw Dogs — both the original and the remake — has a lot to say about violence and the way it can take people over. Even something as seemingly harmless as a football game is made to appear animal in nature. The film asks why should young men go out and hit each other? And more importantly, who are we that we sit and cheer this behavior on?
Rod Lurie, director of such films as The Contender and Nothing But the Truth, does just enough to give this film an identity of its own. Of course, it borrows heavily from the original film; a bit more, I guess, than I would have liked. But it’s shot in a visually interesting way, it’s well-edited, and James Marsden and Kate Bosworth are on top of their games.
It’s difficult to say if this film is really necessary. The best remakes go beyond their source material to look at the main problem in a different way. This one doesn’t go quite that far, but it’s still an engaging film. Horror fans will enjoy it a lot, though I expect a lot of more mainstream movie goers to be turned off by the violence (there’s lots of it, consider yourself warned). But those able to get past that to see the films themes and message will be rewarded.
Written and Directed by Rod Lurie
Starring: James Marsden, Kate Bosworth, Alexander Skarsgard, James Woods