With James Marsden, Kate Bosworth, Alexander Skarsgård, James Woods, Dominic Purcell; Running Time: 108 minutes; Rated R (for strong brutal violence including a sexual attack, menace, some sexual content, and pervasive language); Written and directed by Rod Lurie.
Writer-director Rod Lurie is a film critic-turned-director who has made a number of overheated films (“The Contender,” “Resurrecting The Champ,” “The Last Castle”) that present themselves as addressing important issues, but invariably fall short. That pattern holds with his remake of Sam Peckinpah’s controversial 1971 film STRAW DOGS, which questioned just how far any of us are from violence and unrestrained savagery.
Moving the action from rural England to the American South, the story begins when Hollywood screenwriter David Sumner (James Marsden) and his beautiful wife Amy (Kate Bosworth), take up residence in her old hometown. The locals don’t have much use for David. He’s an intellectual working on a script about the siege of Stalingrad, he drives a sports car, and he keeps trying to use his credit card instead of paying cash. For local boy Charlie (Alexander Skarsgård), it’s especially galling because he and Amy were a hot item in high school.
Charlie and his crew are hired by David to repair the roof of a barn on their property, and the clash of lifestyles grates on both. They loudly begin work while the Sumners are still asleep, drink David’s beer on the job, and then quit early to go hunting. There’s an ugly tension between David and Amy that goes largely unexplored. She deliberately provokes the locals by jogging without a bra, and resents that her husband’s reaction is what can one expect when she dresses like that.
For most of the film, the ugliness keeps building. The Sumner’s cat is found killed, and David refuses to confront Charlie about it. He allows himself to be taken on a hunting trip, which leads to the story’s infamous rape scene when Amy is left home alone. Finally, we get to the point of the story. David and Amy are caring for the mentally defective Jeremy (Dominic Purcell), they inadvertently injured, and who has been responsible for the death of a teenage girl. The girl’s father (James Woods) and Charlie and company arrive to mete out their own form of justice. When David refuses to cooperate it becomes a siege where one side will have to destroy the other.
Lurie has essentially retold the story but doesn’t seem to get why he’s telling it. He changes David from an academic to a screenwriter so he can explain that he’s writing about Stalingrad where an outnumbered force found the strength and fortitude they didn’t realize they had to defend themselves against the invaders. How ironic. That’s exactly the situation David will find himself in. And, indeed, he will have to brutally confront the attackers with the weapons at his disposal.
Yet why? What is the point? In the original it was to explore the capacity for violence and cruelty from the most unexpected sources. Here it’s simply a variation on the old “Death Wish” series formula where the hero has been set up so that whatever he does to defend himself (and his wife) is justified. Instead of the ambiguity of the original we’re left with the feeling that the bad guys suffered a lot and they deserved it.
Skarsgård and Woods try to find some notes of complexity in their characters, but Marsden and Bosworth are trapped with Lurie’s script which sets up some interesting issues only to abandon them for the carnage and mayhem. The original “Straw Dogs” was a violent and nasty film that left you thinking at the end. The only thing you’ll be thinking about at the end of this one is where you parked your car.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.