By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, Sept. 16, 2011
Movie remakes, like musical covers, are best when they're more than slavish, note-for-note copies of the original. They should introduce a twist on the original material, luring not just new (and presumably younger) audiences into theaters, but inviting them to think about that material in a different way.
In that regard, at least, the remake of the Sam Peckinpah-directed "Straw Dogs," a taut, bloody and deliberately disturbing thriller about a man defending his wife and property against a brutal home invasion, does not disappoint. The adaptation by film critic-turned-filmmaker Rod Lurie ("The Contender") is faithful to the controversial 1971 story without butchering it, even as it pushes its themes of masculinity and the roots of violence into new, and in this case, political, territory. Lurie's smart enough to know that we're supposed to be disturbed -- and not titillated -- by the savagery the movie depicts.
The question is: Are we smart enough? A preview audience responded with whooping and scattered applause to the remake's horrific climax, making me wonder whether the flaw's in the new version, or in us.
In one of two big changes to the original, Lurie relocates the drama from rural England to the Deep South. In the process, he also turns its hero from a nebbishy American mathematician (Dustin Hoffman), butting heads with violent British yobs, into a Hollywood screenwriter adrift in Middle America (James Marsden, arguably a stand-in for Lurie). What that means is this: The clash at the center of the film is no longer between one man and a gang of random thugs, but between two grand themes: Left Coast liberalism and the culture of God, guns and country. It's a showdown between red-state America and blue-state America.
Almost immediately upon arriving in Blackwater, Miss. -- a town whose name evokes unchecked aggression, with its echo of the notorious Iraq war contracting company -- Marsden's David Sumner encounters a dangerously volatile situation. A Harvard-educated intellectual, David doesn't hunt, listen to country music, follow football or believe in God, all of which puts him at odds with the churchgoing, sports-loving, rural community in which he and his actress wife, Amy (Kate Bosworth), find themselves after relocating from L.A. to the house she grew up in. Making matters worse is the fact that Amy's old beau Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard, smoldering in more ways than one) hasn't ever really gotten over her. Charlie's like a ticking time bomb.
So is everyone else in the film. From the town's angry and alcoholic former high school football coach (James Woods, decked out in a Bear Bryantesque hounds-tooth hat) to Jeremy (Dominic Purcell), a developmentally disabled man with an unspecified history of inappropriate behavior with underage girls, "Straw Dogs" is a minefield of unexploded human ordnance.
But don't worry. Release, of a sort, will come. After suffering hazing and humiliation large and small -- including the execution of their pet cat and a creepy sexual assault -- David and Amy find themselves in a violent confrontation with the coach, Charlie and Charlie's hillbilly pals, all of whom show up at David and Amy's house one night, drunk and looking to lynch Jeremy. Now holed up in David and Amy's house, after a tragic accident involving the coach's 15-year-old daughter (Willa Holland), Jeremy takes on a symbolic role here. He's innocence personified. And David is his unlikely champion.
The 1971 film was about how it was possible to win a fight while still losing everything, including one's humanity. Its outcome, brutal for the time, left you shell-shocked, by design.
The new version wants to leave you reeling, too. It tries to equate monstrous behavior -- not just Charlie's, or David's, but America's -- with a society that condones, and even glorifies, violence. Football, hunting, Budweiser and inflammatory rhetoric from the pulpit all share blame for society's ills.
Does Lurie have an ax to grind? And how. Yet if, to some ears, its high-pitched whine nearly drowns out the underlying story at times, why did so many in that preview audience seem deaf to it?
Maybe that's Lurie's real point: A culture that feeds on violence -- in real life and on film -- has also inured us to it.
Contains plentiful violence, obscenity and sexual content.