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Overall Rating
2.58

Awesome: 8.33%
Worth A Look: 16.67%
Just Average: 8.33%
Pretty Crappy58.33%
Sucks: 8.33%

1 review, 6 user ratings


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Straw Dogs (2011)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"This "Dogs" Don't Hunt"
2 stars

If one is going to be crazy or foolhardy enough to go out and remake a well-known film--especially one that tends to be regard in cinematic circles as some kind of classic or another--one had better be prepared to bring a fresh take to the material in order to set it apart from its predecessor. For example, when people like John Carpenter and David Cronenberg set out to respectively revamp "The Thing" and "The Fly," they made enough substantial improvements to the existing material that they are now generally regarded as classics in their own rights. If nothing much can be done to change the basic material, then the director in charge should come up with an approach to the material that is distinctive enough to allow them to put their own personal stamp on the proceedings--while the plot lines of the two versions of the thriller "Cape Fear" are structurally similar, Martin Scorsese took the terminally chirpy all-American family depicted in the 1962 original and transformed them into a emotionally fractured unit that was already deeply damaged long before Robert De Niro sauntered into their lives. The trouble with "Straw Dogs," the new version of the brutal Sam Peckinpah film that has been inspiring controversy ever since it premiered in 1971, is that it slavishly follows the path blazed by the original, minus most of the sharp edges that caused all the aforementioned controversy in the first place, without ever coming up with a new take on the material. The end result is a slick but essentially soulless exercise that is filled with blood and guts and savagery but never once manages to come close to justify its own existence. It winds up being about as profound and memorable as the recent remake of the equally nasty "Last House on the Left" and when was the last time you gave that particular title a second thought since it came out, if even then?

For those unfamiliar with the material, the film opens as David and Amy Sumner (James Marsden and Kate Bosworth) arrive in her old hometown of Blackwater, Mississippi--the kind of grisly backwater where all the pickups are adorned with deer antlers and basic dental care has only been afforded to the cast members with the highest billing--to move into her family's fortress-sized home following her father's death. While David, a screenwriter currently hard at work on a script about-Plot Foreshadowing-the siege of Stalingrad (good thing he turned down the gig punching up the script for that Hilary Duff rom-com), immediately seems out of place with his smooth hands, clean clothes and refusal to eat fried pickles, former golden girl Amy,who left town to become the literal embodiment of the old joke about the blonde actress so dumb that she slept with the writer, once again finds herself the center of attention, especially those directed at her by former flame Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard), whose exaggerated take on Southern hospitality barely masks the fact that he is eager to pick up where things left off with his old girlfriend. Unable to pick up on these signals or unwilling to make a scene over them, David hires Charlie and his pals to work on fixing up their Katrina-ravaged barn and recognizing David's reticence as a form of weakness, the guys proceed to throw his politeness back in his face by showing up first thing in the morning to start work while blasting music at ear-splitting levels, cutting out early for one half-assed reason after another and wandering into the house uninvited to raid the refrigerator. While David politely looks the other way at all of this so as not to come across as the bad guy--even when their pet cat meets a grisly end that one almost certainly caused by either Charlie or one of his buddies--Amy recognizes what is going on and grows to resent her husband more and more for his refusal to take a stand for himself.

Things come to a head when David, making one last-ditch effort to bond with the guys, is taken out with them on an alleged hunting trip that turns out to be a ruse to strand him out in the middle of nowhere. While this is going on, Charlie pays a visit to Amy, who is back at the house, basically rapes her and then sits by idly and watches as one of the other guys comes in and takes his turn as well. When David returns that night, he is so aggravated about what has happened to him that he barely notices that something is off with Amy and she refuses to inform him of what happened to her. The next night, through circumstances that I will leave for those who haven't seen the original to discover, David and Amy run across Jeremy (Dominic Purcell), a mentally handicapped galoot who has just inadvertently gotten himself into a lot of trouble without quite realizing it, and bring him back to their house to await help. Alas, a goon squad consisting of Charlie's gang and their drunken and sadistic former school football coach (James Woods, essentially Woodsing up the joint) arrive and demand that David turn Jeremy over to them. When he refuses, things quickly and violently escalate as the local thugs try to break their way into the house and the now-bloodthirsty David staves them off with nail guns, cooking oil and a bear trap that is practically Chekovian in the way that its appearance in the first act foreshadows its sudden deployment in the third.

To be honest, although I put Sam Peckinpah right up there with the top rank of American filmmakers, I must confess that "Straw Dogs" has never been one of my favorites--while certainly provocative and brilliantly crafted, it lacks the poetry and elegance that unexpectedly lay beneath the surface of such other overtly macho movies as "The Wild Bunch," "Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid" and yes, even the infamous "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia." What made the original "Straw Dogs" intriguing long after the initial shock over the surprising level of brutality wore off was the way that Peckinpah took that most basic of story concepts, that of the bullied little man who finally triumphs over his adversaries using his wits, intelligence and, when all else would fail, his newly discovered physical might, and filled it with enough nuance and complexity to make it feel fresh, intriguing and personal. Specifically, what he was trying to get across was the idea that even the most seemingly mild-mannered of individuals have a capacity for violence and cruelty and it is only a matter of finding their breaking point before it is unleashed with potentially horrific results. This may seem like a quaint and naive notion now but in 1971, a period when the entire world seemed to be exploding into inexplicable violence ranging from war and assassination to ordinary guys shooting up the neighborhood, this was a relatively radical notion to put across in a major motion picture.

At first glance in the original film, when we saw David (Dustin Hoffman), we are presumably meant to feel sympathy for him for his nerdy inability to stand up for himself as the local louts ogle trophy wife Amy (Susan George). As the film proceeds and we get a glimpse into the fragile state of their marriage, it becomes apparent that in his own meek and unassuming manner, David is a bully as well in regards to his wife--he treats her like a child throughout by quietly lording his superior intellect over her (when they first met, he was a professor and she was a student), more or less blames her for when the locals leer at her and refuses to take her fears about the escalating situation seriously. In Peckinpah's eyes, David was just as much of a bad guy in his own way as his oppressors and when the worm finally and brutally turned, his facility for physical violence was not much of a surprise since he had already proven himself to be a master at emotional violence throughout the story.

The trouble with this new version, as conceived by writer-director Rod Lurie, is that it not only lacks Peckinpah's point-of-view of the proceedings, it lacks any discernible point-of-view at all--it feels at time as though it were made by people who only read the dialogue in the screenplay and ignored the stage directions thought point them in the direction of what those words meant. This time around, there is no initial conflict between David and Amy to speak of and by switching their initial relationship from teacher-professor to screenwriter-actress, the film loses not only a good amount of subtext but bizarrely jettisons what could have been an effective method of showing David's alienation from his new surroundings--why not keep him as a blue state man of science and place him amongst the kind of people who fully reject Darwin's theories of evolution, perhaps because they act almost as a living rebuke to said theories? (Lurie tries this with a couple of awkward bits in which David smugly proclaims his disbelief in religion but they just aren't the same.) Adding to the problem is the thorough blandness of Marsden and Bosworth in the lead roles--only Skarsgard comes close to success with a performance that initially captures the outwardly friendly/inwardly frightening makeup of his character but towards the end, he seems as lost and confused as the screenplay.

More importantly, there is the sense throughout that Lurie actually likes David (which might explain why he made him a screenwriter, especially one who smugly mentions that he doesn't write horror or action films) and wants us to be firmly in his corner during the long and violent siege instead of being repulsed by his savagery. The character of Amy is also reduced in complexity as well--instead of a young woman quietly chafing at being treated as little more than an anonymous sex object by practically every male she knows, she is treated her as little more than an anonymous sex object and her brief bits of rebellion against this treatment come across as either inadequate (as in the original, she changes a key piece of information on David's blackboard but while that is a potentially big deal when it involves a complex mathematical equation, it is much less so when it involves a date regarding Stalingrad that even Charlie recognizes as being incorrect when he sees it) or just plain stupid (as when she responds to David's suggestion that she dress more modestly by blatantly stripping in full view of the work crew outside her window). Without these nuances, what was once an interesting story about marital strife, psychological warfare and man's inherent bloodlust has been largely transformed into an extended epilogue to the old joke about the blond actress who was so dumb that she slept with the writer.

Another problem with "Straw Dogs" is that while Peckinpah's version felt like a story being told by someone who wanted to tell it with every fiber of his being and spared nothing in his efforts to put it across exactly as he saw it in his head with as few compromises as possible, you never get that sense from anything that Lurie does here. In the past, he has largely dealt with ambitious dramas often dealing with overtly political themes such as "Deterrence," "The Contender," "The Last Castle" and "Nothing but the Truth." Not all of those movies were entirely successful but they at least felt like they came from someone with something specific to say about the world. "Straw Dogs," on the other hand, never contains any sense of that drive--what was once a distinct personal statement has been transformed into a tale as generic as the sodas chugged throughout by the good people of Blackwater. Perhaps in the wake of the failure of "Nothing but the Truth"--a fascinating riff on the Judith Miller case that became one of the best American dramas of recent years that you most likely didn't see thanks to its distributor going belly-up on the eve of its release--Lurie simply wanted to relax and do an ordinary genre project filled with kind of action and violence that he largely eschewed in his previous efforts. The trouble is that while Lurie is erectly good at creating scenes in which a couple of people are sitting in a room debating intense political or legal concepts, he is all thumbs when it comes to depicting the violence inherent to the story that he has chosen. For his take on the two most infamous sequences from the original--the rape of Amy that took on additional levels of queasiness due to the prolonging of the proceedings and the suggestion that she was a not entirely unwilling participant, at least at first, and the final siege in which David messily takes on all comers--he essentially follows Peckinpah's stagings and complex, jagged editing style to a T but they just come across as awkward in Lurie's hands. Additionally, he pretty much denudes the rape scene by cutting dawn considerably on the length, graphicness and ambiguity so that it just become another mildly unpleasant bit of business that only serves to further justify David's actions in our eyes even though he never actually learns about it from her.

Ironically, while the lack of any troubling subtext or ambiguity makes this remake of "Straw Dogs" a relative failure on an artistic level, the straightforward and nuance-free brutality could well make it a hit with viewers who prefer their revenge thriller to be equal parts malicious and mindless. At the screening I attended, an even in which some people brought little kids and the pre-show threat about using cameras or cell phones concluded with the deathless phrase "Now sit back and enjoy 'Straw Dogs,'" a good portion of the audience was cheering and applauding the finale with the zeal one might find at a sporting match. Afterwards, while waiting for the bus, I overheard another couple who had been at the same screening talking about the film. Both seemed to love it but the guy exclaimed that during the part when (Spoiler Alert!) someone gets their head caught in the aforementioned bear trap, he was disappointed that the person's head didn't pop clean off. When his date pointed out that such traps were designed to hold their prey and not to cut clean through them, he reluctantly saw her point but still proclaimed that the film as a whole was "rad." Well, if he is lucky, maybe someone can squeeze a sequel out of "Straw Dogs" (hey, they made a "Home Alone 2") and make his dreams of head-popping glory come true one day.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=19717&reviewer=389
originally posted: 09/16/11 00:00:00
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User Comments

9/14/17 morris campbell never seen the original but this 1 sux 1 stars
1/16/13 MatthewThompsonDalldorf mr.mike, this is an unneccesary ramake 2 stars
10/02/11 Kim Kelly Had very uncomfortable scenes but the actors made the film compelling 3 stars
9/27/11 mr.mike Manages to avoid the "unneccesary remake" tag. 4 stars
9/19/11 Jeff Wilder Not on the level of the original. But good overall. Bosworth way better than S George. 4 stars
9/17/11 constance jiles I feel this mined blowing movie wit twist in turns 5 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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USA
  16-Sep-2011 (R)
  DVD: 20-Dec-2011

UK
  N/A

Australia
  16-Sep-2011
  DVD: 20-Dec-2011


Directed by
  Rod Lurie

Written by
  Rod Lurie

Cast
  James Marsden
  Rhys Coiro
  Alexander Skarsgård



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