fri 14/06/2024

Straw Dogs | reviews, news & interviews

Straw Dogs

Straw Dogs

Pale remake of Peckinpah's Seventies provocation

Home sweet home: Kate Bosworth meets the neighbours

As this remake’s director Rod Lurie, a former film journalist, well knows, competing with Sam Peckinpah is a loser’s game. His films are no more replicable than a Fred Astaire musical, inseparable from their demonic creator.

Straw Dogs was his lone, 1971 excursion to Britain, with Dustin Hoffman as a mousey American mathematician who accompanies new wife Susan George’s return to her rustic Cornish home, which in Peckinpah’s hands is as hostile as the badlands his western heroes rode through. Hoffman’s civilised veneer cracks along with his marriage, and he becomes an atavistic killing machine.

I saw Straw Dogs in the Nineties when its long cinema ban finished, alongside its fellow scandals of the “Savage Seventies”, A Clockwork Orange and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The rape of Susan George’s character by her ex-boyfriend, which she plainly starts to enjoy until it becomes a gang-rape, cost its certificate. The notorious scene was defensible because the mingled sex and sexual violence, arousal curdling into almost unwatchable brutality, made me think and feel so much, letting loose strong sensations the mind struggled to control. Peckinpah’s misogyny was objectionable, but alive with its director’s (and George’s) visceral fearlessness.

Watch a clip from Peckinpah's 1971 Straw Dogs

No, Lurie doesn’t compete with that. Instead, every decision he makes domesticates Straw Dogs. Peckinpah, himself a stranger in a strange land, turned Cornishmen into Apache-style “savages”, with Hoffman a maddened lone cavalryman; alienation for British viewers, too, watching local character actors imitate inbred rednecks in the modern West Country. Lurie felt this flopped in the States because of its locale, so, says his producer, helpfully added a “familiar setting that was missing from the original”. Welcome then to Blackwater, Mississippi, and yet another tale of small-town Deep South intolerance, familiar from Deliverance to Footloose.

Hoffman’s David is no longer a weedy mathematician but a strapping LA screenwriter played by handsome James Marsden, aiming to finish a script on Stalingrad while actress wife Amy (Kate Bosworth) raises the temperature of old boyfriend Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard) and his gang of ex-school football stars, leering down from the roof they’re repairing. This Straw Dogs can be reduced to a middle-class couple with the builders in, impotently seething as the oiks blast the radio at the crack of dawn, clock out early and traipse indoors to raid the fridge.

Such conflicts are normally resolved before anyone rapes the wife and hangs the cat, and Lurie is good in the long build-up before that happens. Fine acting helps. James Woods (above right) is a one-man wild card as the school team’s ex-coach, playing drunk with a shark-eyed stare, and reservoirs of violent feeling. Skarsgard’s rangy body and direct, almost goofy intelligence convince equally as an abandoned lover in Melancholia and an ageing jock rapist here. The Swedish actor’s version of quiet Southern civility is more intelligent and attractive than David, veiling effective menace. David’s attempts to integrate raise hackles: buying everyone a drink, he doesn’t stay for one himself. “Some people might call that rude,” muses Charlie as the bar-door swings.

When the rape comes, it feels like a film-studies replay of Peckinpah’s awful scene

Class lines are clearly and sympathetically drawn. “Plenty’s what the fuck I need,” mutters a builder when David’s wealth is discussed, in a town where the young black sheriff was in Iraq. Its people are better sketched than the original’s brutish yokels, till the rape scene requires them to be just that. Bosworth, raw-nerved and simply truthful, seems more angered by her effete husband than her violation. When that moment comes, Lurie shows her enjoying Charlie’s aggressive ravishing, as she earlier liked being bossed in bed by David, but it feels like a film-studies replay of Peckinpah’s awful scene, happily avoiding salaciousness, but too squeamishly flinching to affect you or her.

Though Lurie effectively critiques David, his film has its hero’s character. You could imagine David writing it, his buttoned-up Hollywood sensibility sanitising everything. It has the flatly golden look of every other recent Seventies horror remake: The Hills Have Eyes, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween. Nothing lurks in these frames. Like their heroes, they’re sun-kissed, clean-limbed, innocent. The final confrontation may be meant as David’s private Stalingrad, strategising his survival instead of researching others’. It feels like a choreographed set piece from film-makers with no sense of ferocity. Forty years on, Peckinpah’s film still has a mongrel’s bite. This is a tame pet.

Watch the trailer to Straw Dogs

Lurie doesn’t compete with Peckinpah. Instead, every decision he makes domesticates Straw Dogs


Editor Rating: 
Average: 2 (1 vote)

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I'm not a fan of remakes, especially remakes of films I absolutely adore - but from the looks of this trailer it seems Dustin Hoffman and the GORGEOUS Susan George could be done quite proud here.

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