Straw Dogs

Straw Dogs

****

Reviewed by: David Graham

Remakes are always contentious propositions, but an already conflicting film like Straw Dogs is an even riskier option for modern overhaul. Sam Peckinpah's adaptation of The Siege Of Trencher's Farm ramped up a simple story with some fashionable but controversial violence and threw in a deeply disturbing double rape that dared to suggest its victim might be enjoying the experience, even just for a brief moment.

The Contender helmer Rod Lurie perhaps understandably tones down some of the original's uncomfortable ambiguity but proves adept at handling the troubling human drama while building slow-simmering thrills. This new incarnation won't linger in your head like its predecessor, but it remains a hugely affecting and effective experience.

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Hollywood screenwriter David needs solitude to work on a difficult Stalingrad period project, so relocates to his gorgeous actress wife Susan's Southern hometown. Her recently deceased father's isolated farmhouse needs renovation, the couple enlisting a group of feckless local tradesmen - including Amy's high-school sweetheart Charlie - to fix up the property's crumbling barn. David's encounters with his new neighbors are initially good-humoured but condescension from both sides gives way to the rednecks intimidating the interloper, the conflict highlighting cracks in his relationship with his wife and their opinions of one another. Psychological warfare soon turns physical, the couple's involvement in some local drama leading to a fiery showdown where David must finally embrace his violent side in order to protect his wife and their besieged home.

Despite several superificial changes - shifting the fish-out-of-water action from foggy Cornwall to America's sun-drenched South, giving David and Amy borderline celebrity lifestyles - the crux of the story remains the same. Apart from some jarring exposition - which at least ties in with David's smart-ass personality - the film is still focused on men struggling with what a man should be, and how that relates to women.

To its credit, this remake makes that singular woman a much more rounded and appealing presence, Amy here becoming a far more able-minded and pro-active personality. Susan George was never the original's strongest selling point; her borderline irritating performance perhaps added to its provocative power, although she did grow into the role as it became more serious.

Here, Kate Bosworth is something of a revelation. It takes some time for her nuance to show through, but once she starts challenging her husband's preconceptions - convincingly highlighting them as being closer to his alpha male rivals than David would like to think - and reacting against the animalistic men around her, Amy's journey becomes absolutely riveting. In fact, it puts everything that David goes through in the shade, which some will see as another weakness in comparison to the original.

Arguably however, Lurie takes Amy's ordeal more seriously than Peckinpah did; the infamous rape scene is even more harrowing here for being completely unambiguous as to her suffering, evident right from the moment Charlie appears uninvited at her door. Bosworth handles the difficult sequence with heart-breaking realism, and the way she conveys the aftermath throughout the rest of the movie is even more credible, despite the director using cliched cross-cutting flashbacks a little too gratuitously.

James Marsden also acquits himself well, despite never channeling the unhinged mania Dustin Hoffman portrayed so memorably. The X-Men actor's natural athleticism may be an ill fit for the character, but he communicates David's initial emasculation and eventual defiant empowerment with enough intensity and commitment to make the early scenes deliciously unsettling and the climax every bit as rousing as it should be. David's patroniding attempts to appreciate his new community are also nicely juxtaposed with his ignorant disinterest in their beliefs and ways; this hypocrisy makes for a highly charged battle of wills, only spilling over into outright contempt towards the end.

Charlie's character is a much more balanced presence here, even being sympathetic at points. This makes the conflict between him and David much more interesting, the physically imposing Alexander Skarsgard striking the right notes of down-home charisma and calculating dominance. He even handles the rape scene with a pathos that may catch viewers off-guard, making his hesitant part in the final attack more believable.

Circling all of this is an awesomely volcanic but at times over-bearing James Woods as the belligerent coach whose daughter acts as the catalyst for the confrontation, with Dominic Purcell miscast but still subtly impressive as a hulking child-like outcast who becomes the scapegoat for lynch-mob vengeance.

Problematic plot points remain. The handling of Purcell's character's situation isn't exactly Of Mice And Men, and while the view of backwoods communities is less narrow than it was 40 years ago, the story is still pretty much devoid of any empathetic representatives of small-town life. Taken on its own merits though, Rod Lurie's sure hand makes for a highly engaging and ultimately exciting thriller, mostly managing not to lay on the messages underlying the madness too thickly.

Many positive aspects of this update could be taken as negatives - the polished look, the stunning stars - but it remains faithful to the spirit of the original, Lurie's integrity highlighted by his fine eye for recycling details that worked before in ways that never feel lazy. Peckinpah purists may be put off by what they will see as a watering down of his deliberately rough edges, but this Straw Dogs will hopefully find fans of its own given time and half a chance.

Reviewed on: 08 Nov 2011
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Remake sees a couple under siege in an isolated farmhouse.
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Donald Munro *1/2

Director: Rod Lurie

Writer: Rod Lurie, David Zelag Goodman, Sam Peckinpah, Gordon Williams

Starring: James Marsden, Kate Bosworth, Alexander Skarsgård, James Woods, Dominic Purcell, Rhys Coiro, Billy Lush, Laz Alonso, Willa Holland, Walton Goggins, Anson Mount, Drew Powell, Kristen Shaw, Megan Adelle, Randall Newsome

Year: 2011

Runtime: 110 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

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