James Marsden as David Sumner
Kate Bosworth as Amy Sumner
Alexander Skarsgård as Charlie
James Woods as Tom “Coach” Heddon
Dominic Purcell as Jeremy Niles
Drew Powell as Bic
Rhys Coiro as Norman
Billy Lush as Chris
Laz Alonso as John Burke
Willa Holland as Janice Heddon
Walton Goggins as Daniel Niles
Anson Mount as Coach Milkens
Kristen Shaw as Abby
Megan Adelle as Melissa
Jessica Cook as Helen
Directed by Rod Lurie
Hollywood screenwriter David Sumner (James Marsden) and his new wife Amy (Kate Bosworth) have returned to her hometown of Blackwater, Mississippi to get away while he works on a new screenplay, moving into her daddy’s old home. They’ve hired some locals to fix up the old barn that got damaged in a hurricane, but leading the team is Amy’s old boyfriend Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard) who proceeds to antagonize David with his crew as tensions build leading to a shocking final conflict.
(SPOILER WARNING: If you haven’t seen the original movie or don’t know the original plot, we do discuss two or three of the major plot points brought over from that movie in discussing this remake.)
Depending on who you ask, doing a remake of Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 revenge thriller (of sorts) may seem like an odd choice for Rod Lurie, one of the few film critics who has had even greater success as a filmmaker, but if one were to look at the original movie with honesty, it wasn’t exactly “The Godfather” or “Jaws” or “Star Wars,” so it’s surprising anyone would feel so precious about the movie other than for the part it played in Peckinpah’s legacy.
For Lurie, it’s quite a stark contrast from his last two films, transporting the premise from Gordon Williams’ “The Siege of Trencher’s Farm,” the inspiration for Peckinpah’s film, to the American South. His ability to capture the spirit of a small Southern town, everything from the laid back attitude about locking doors to the worship of football (in this case, almost literally), is quite fascinating, and his two leads thrive in this first half, James Marsden as David, the intellectual screenwriter and Kate Bosworth as Amy, the failed television actress he scored, as the happy newlyweds try to adjust to a very different type of living. It’s certainly a change for David, but for Amy, it means returning to a past she thought she escaped, and that includes her high school boyfriend Charlie, who immediately has problems with her new husband and his attitude towards Southerners, especially when it come to faith.
Marsden gives another career high performance as David, a sensitive guy trying to prove to his new wife that he can fit in and be the type of strong and tough man that’s bred in the area. Bosworth was also a good choice since she’s equally capable at playing the sexy and flirtatious Amy at the beginning then transforming into something tougher and more damaged. Neither actor seems particularly hampered by the fact the original Peckinpah movie was such a huge stepping stone in the careers of the actors who originated their roles.
Though incredibly well written, there’s no denying the first hour of the movie tends to drag as it takes its time establishing the relationships between the characters and setting up the conflict that’s to come later. It doesn’t help that in this case the titular “Straw Dogs”–what David dubs the locals in Charlie’s crew who all peaked during their high school football years–all have such strong personalities, you almost want to root for them. Charlie is certainly a compelling role for Alexander Skarsgard, but certainly not the typical movie baddie some might expect.
Lurie has made a fantastic looking movie from the opening shots that establish this environment in a similarly engaging way as Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” before turning ugly. The music is effective at setting the tone as is the editing, which creates even greater tension as it quickly cuts between different characters during the more tense moments. Like “Source Code,” Lurie’s crew is made up of mostly unfamiliar names we haven’t seen on far too many movies and Lurie orchestrates them as well as he does his actors to deliver solid work.
That’s why it’s a shame that “Straw Dogs” is a remake, because where it falters is essentially whenever it feels the need to remain beholden to the original. If you haven’t seen Peckinpah’s movie, then stop reading here; you’ll certainly appreciate this movie more not knowing some of the shocking events to come. Then again, those who aren’t familiar with it might experience this movie more like an oddity, half-intelligent character drama, half-violent revenge thriller. The definitive turning point where it transitions from one to the other is a rape scene that’s impossible and almost careless to ignore when discussing either movie. In Lurie’s movie, that rape is handled in a tasteful way… or as tastefully as it possibly can… but it’s still incredibly disturbing, and just as before, it’s where “Straw Dogs” is likely to keep or lose its audience.
An even bigger problem transported over from Peckinpah’s movie is the whole subplot with the dim-witted Jeremy Miles, here played by Dominic Purcell, whose involvement with the coach’s teen daughter leads to the conflict in the last act. (Who knows what the purpose of having Walton Goggins playing Jeremy’s brother is, because he’s nowhere to be found when things come to a head.)
The action and violence in the last act, the siege on their home, is fairly well done although based on what Lurie set up in the first half, it feels like things turn violent too quickly to be plausible. That last act is also greatly hurt by the horrendous amount of scenery-chewing done by James Woods, which you’re never sure whether you’re allowed to laugh at or not. Considering how much the marketing focuses on this siege, it’s a fairly quick affair, then like the original, the movie ends quite suddenly leaving you wondering what you’ve just watched. After such a great set-up, most will probably wish Lurie created some sort of resolution or epilogue showing the repercussions of this life-changing experience for David and Amy. It’s just one of the missed opportunities in what could have been a remake that surmounted that unfortunate label.
The Bottom Line:
Considering how well things are established in the first half of “Straw Dogs,” it’s disappointing when it becomes too reverential to its predecessor and fails to avoid the traps that plagued it. That doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyed on its own merits, but one can easily see it having worked even better as its own thing.