Review: Straw Dogs Favors Bark Over Bite

The story hasn't changed: a big-city intellectual and his wife move back to her rural hometown, where the locals proceed to prove just how little they care for outsiders questioning their way of life. Whereas Sam Peckinpah’s controversial 1971 film, Straw Dogs, pitted David (Dustin Hoffman), a meek American mathematician, against English country folk, Rod Lurie’s update plants a Hollywood screenwriter (James Marsden) in small-town Mississippi and allows similar instigation to unfold.

The local pack is led by Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard), who still lusts after one-time cheerleader and girlfriend Amy (Kate Bosworth), even when she brings home a husband as godless and passive as David is. It doesn’t hurt that Skarsgard himself boasts a good six inches of height over Marsden, and nearly a foot over Bosworth -- he’s initially all smiles, but it doesn’t take much for him to assert his dominance over either in any given conversation or confrontation, and Lurie has a clever habit of framing David within the crooks of Charlie's arms, trapping our protagonist even when he’s doing something as simple and naïve as asking Charlie and his fellow roofers to keep their work down in the early morning hours.

Alas, that ends up being the most subtle indication of a shifting power dynamic that the writer/director can muster. Everything seems much more phallic here, whether gun barrels, chess pieces, hammers or bottles of Bud, and extreme characterization is favored over extreme action. David can’t just be a West Coast liberal type; he has to be a condescending dolt who doesn’t know how to change a tire or handle a gun, who can’t be bothered to sit through a church sermon, and who favors classical over country music. Better yet, he drives a mint-condition Jaguar while Charlie’s crew rolls around town in a pick-up truck with antlers attached to the front -- frankly, I’m surprised that Lurie didn’t go so far as to make the truck model a Dodge Ram.

Climactic foreshadowing runs rampant -- chess matches, football games, war re-creations -- while the original’s intimations of a pacifist fleeing Vietnam-era protest are short-changed in favor of a cursory mention of the local sheriff’s time spent in Iraq. No, no, David just really wants to work on his screenplay, and Amy finds herself frustrated, first with her husband’s refusal to engage the locals and their traditions, and then with his refusal to defend her honor and their marriage -- until things turn bloody in the third act. This is when David decides that the least he can do is protect town invalid Jeremy (Dominic Purcell) from the hot-headed likes of town drunk Tom (James Woods), especially when it appears that the former might’ve unwittingly killed Tom’s daughter.

Prior to the confrontation, Tom fails to see his teenage daughter’s advances on the older, slower man, only swearing that he better keep away. What her interest is, we never really know, except for maybe serving as a foolhardy counterpoint to a sexually-assaulted Amy -- one character invites trouble, while the other watches trouble barge in through the front door. It should be said that Bosworth is better than usual here, or at least challenged more as an actress, given that her career to date hasn’t really asked for much resentment or helplessness out of her performances. While it still seems like Marsden could hold his own against any man if he just lost the glasses, he’s boxed in by this version’s more conventional arc; what’s great about Hoffman’s work in the role is that he and Peckinpah didn’t care whether or not we were left rooting for him in the end, so long as his newfound sense of cool, even heartless rationale was apparent (a quality instead adapted, and well, by Skasgard). To see Marsden play things meekly is hardly convincing, and to see him save the day is hardly surprising.

And of course, there’s a tidy speech shoehorned in that spells out the significance of the title, and naturally, Amy has to explicitly ask whether or not she deserves her leering admirers, while Peckinpah’s film did it without saying a word and was all the more fascinating for it. Everything here plays out to the same beats and yet ultimately results in conventional revenge-minded catharsis rather than queasy ambivalence (just how much of this can be pegged on a modern moviegoing audience conditioned to blindly cheer on violence, I’m not sure).

Call it anything else, and this isn’t bad for a pulpy home-invasion thriller, eager to escalate the stakes while demonstrating a more muscular and direct sense of filmmaking than we usually get from the likes of Lurie and his polemic-heavy dramas. Call it Straw Dogs, though, and it can’t help but pale in comparison to a truly provocative film.

Grade: C+