Early on in Straw Dogs James Marden’s David orders a Bud Light at the local bar. He’s told that they in fact do not serve Bud Light. Only Budweiser, “fully loaded”. The 2011 Straw Dogs is not unlike a light beer. It has some interesting variations on the original, but in the end it’s not as satisfying or filling, and it isn’t quite ‘fully loaded”. Will it do? Actually, yes. Just know that there’s something better if you want it.
Straw Dogs almost works. It’s just that, by the very nature of its existence, it invites comparisons to something more iconic and singular and it doesn’t always stack up. The main issue is that, like many remakes, it gets stuck between audiences. I just can’t see this film existing today without the original being the branding launchpad that it (curiously) is. In updating the story for a modern audience, writer/director Rod Lurie has held on to so many elements of the original that the movie falls into a gray zone. It’s hard to blame him for being so reverential (I can’t imagine many directors veering off-text in adapting this material), but the result is a movie that feels just a bit like an echo.
What do I mean about being stuck between audiences? I don’t mean it in a commercial sense necessarily. I actually wish modern audiences had more of an appetite for deliberately paced fare, so I’m not going to take a movie to task for trying to challenge the viewer. But as someone who has seen the original, I grew a bit bored in places because the story beats are pretty much uniform. And if I’d never seen the original, I would be truly puzzled by some of the choices, both small (Marsden’s jump-rope routine comes to mind) and large (we’ll get to that in a second).
Despite its location shift (and the passing of four decades) Straw Dogs maintains an impressively similar aesthetic to the original, right down to the layout of the Sumners’ living room. It also has the same general narrative structure as the first film which is actually a little problematic in more ways than just, “oh I’ve seen this before”.
The 1971 film was a canvas for Peckinpah to explore themes of masculinity, violence and sexuality. It allowed itself to meander, sniff around, circle back and explore its territory. There’s an arc, but it’s not a straight line from A to B. While it’s an (increasingly) uncommon approach, in the case of the earlier film it feels like an earned luxury. In the new version the pace is certainly sped up, but the story is still left to ramble a bit. It’s not a disastrous choice, but it’s not particularly helpful either. Peckinpah’s film allowed itself to lean on its pungent atmosphere in order to congeal disparate narrative elements into something organic and satisfying. Lurie’s film suffers as a result of adjusting the tonal elements disproportionately to the actual unfolding of events.
Most of the performances are quite good, however. James Marsden is playing a much more WASP-y David. A man whose avoidance of confrontation comes from a less compulsive and more socially refined place than Hoffman’s character. It’s not a change for the better, but it’s an interesting dynamic shift. Alexander Skarsgard is great as Charlie, charming and menacing in equal measure. There’s a quiet, crucial difference in one of the choices the character makes that he’s able to play very well (at least in the moment*). Rhys Coiro is effectively menacing even though he only has about 10 lines. The only real miss is James Woods, whose Tom Heddon goes so big and broad right out of the box that there’s none of the pathos that layered the character’s final decisions in the original.
For me, the single biggest difference in the entire film is the choice to make Kate Bosworth’s Amy Sumner such a radically different person. Her overall trajectory is similar, but Bosworth’s Amy is much smarter and more assertive than Susan George’s. This makes her arguments with Marsden more toe-to-toe and less pouty. More importantly, it allows the character to make a deliberate choice in this film that was wholly accidental in the first. It’s a choice that invites some stupid “asking for it” accusations, but it’s completely consistent with the new take on the character. Shifting the character of Amy so far away from George’s portrayal is also a smart move in that I couldn’t imagine a modern audience even being remotely able to identify with a modernized version of the prior incarnation.
As a treatise on masculinity the movie is pretty much intact (though the film plays much more on the nose, with characters verbalizing what was once subtext). However, regarding the nature of violence, thematically, things have shifted a bit. As Lurie stated in our interview “Peckinpah is much more from that school of violence being biologically embedded in us and and I’m from the point of view that violence is conditioned into us. So we told the same story but from different points of view.”
As someone whose own personal take on violence is probably somewhere between the two, I can see some of the benefit of these changes. Do I think it’s a better choice? No. Does it play? In a way, it does. Still, there are several moments during the oft-advertised massacre at the end of the film where I could see the same gleam of joy and redemption in the eyes of Marsden’s David as I did in Hoffman’s. These final moments guide the film outside the grasp of Lurie’s intent and back into Peckinpah’s wheelhouse, which works fine for me. And as far as the massacre goes… if you were worried they were going to hold back, they don’t. Whether or not you cheer for it is something I would imagine Peckinpah and Lurie would have different responses to.
SPOILERS (I guess, I mean the original is 40 years old).
In the original film after Charlie rapes Amy, Norman forces Charlie off at gunpoint and proceeds to rape her himself. In the new version, I didn’t see a gun or catch the implication of one. Charlie seems put off by this, but just kind of sits back and lets it happen without the threat of physical violence. It’s a strange change that almost makes Charlie a beta male within his own social circle, a conceit that the rest of the movie does not really support.
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