Review: 'Straw Dogs' Only Offers the White Noise of Empty Violence
by Jeremy Kirk
September 16, 2011
How many times must it be said that a remake isn't necessarily a bad thing. If the writer or director has something interesting to say through a story that's been told before or if they find an interesting way to convey the same themes that have already been spelled out before, a remake can be a beneficial thing. Of course, there are times where the themes are misunderstood, or, at the very least, retold with a different attitude in mind that takes out all subtlety and nuance. That's when the subtext is lost, but, even still, you could have an exciting film on your hands. Rod Lurie's new take on Straw Dogs can't even get that right.
There is nothing new conveyed in this 2011 remake of the 1971 Sam Peckinpah film nor are there fresh and inspired ways in which the original film's motivations are spelled out. Nor does it work as a thrilling home invasion drama, so all we're really left with are crescendos of noise, ferocious film making and editing that creates a louder and louder haze of white noise, all of it signifying nothing.
As with the original film, the centers on a married couple, David and Amy Sumner, this time played by James Marsden and Kate Bosworth, who travel to her small-town home. In this film, David is a Hollywood screenwriter, because somewhere along the way Lurie heard the phrase "write what you know". As with Hoffman's David in the original film, the character here is nebbish, timid to the idea of standing up for himself or his wife. Things begin to turn on David and Amy when a group of locals, led by Alexander Skarsgård's Charlie, begin to make life less than ideal for the happy couple, and before it's all said and done, the boiling point is met and a crescendo of brutal violence finds its way in.
But Lurie, never a writer or director who has had much need for subtlety, seems to lose sight of what David Zelag Goodman and Peckinpah's original screenplay had to say. The idea of someone being pushed to their breaking point and the senseless violence that expels from them is found here in the remake, but it's handled at the most surface-level way possible. Nothing is nuanced in Luries' screenplay, and, in fact, the first 30 minutes of this new Straw Dogs is weighted down with as many cliches as you can think of. If you thought it begins and ends with a cat launching itself from nowhere to scare our newly settled protagonists, you'd be wrong. It isn't ten minutes later when David mentions their inability to get cell phone reception at the country house, a horror trope that should have died years ago.
Aside from the cliches, the structuring goes through the motions all to lead to the inevitable conclusion we know from the original. The small town here is a hotbed for tension. Various subplots dangle out their for the audience to see, some of them seemingly freestanding from the central thread. It all ends up coming together in the overtly violent siege that makes up the final third of the film, but leading up to it you can't help but wonder where it's all going. There's no marriage between everything, at least none that is aware enough for the audience to be able to see ahead on this road their traveling on. When everything does come to a head it feels forced, as if it's in there just because that's how the original film did it.
That may work if Lurie's directing style or screenwriting gave an exciting thriller that kept you on the edge of your seat. But Lurie's directing style and particularly his editing style has one decibel level, and it's off the charts. There are moments throughout Straw Dogs where images are coming at you with so much velocity you can't even take them in let alone get an idea of what you're supposed to focus on. Other times Lurie lingers on shots of severe violence or brutality, an indication of going more for titillation than an underlying theme against such violence. When the finale comes, it explodes like a grenade filled with fast editing, extreme closeups, and incredibly dark imagery that keeps you from even guessing who's doing what to who.
And in that finale, the whole tone is wrong, too. The acts of revenge here aren't mean to be crowd-pleasing moments, the kind of violence against evil that has audiences whooping and cheering in their seats. It's supposed to be so much more than the sigh of relief one gets when their animalistic nature shows itself, takes over, causing you to do acts of unspeakable savagery to those who've wronged you. It doesn't appear Lurie understands this, but the way it's all shot, it isn't even like it can be enjoyed in the way he intended. What's left is a mess of poor filmmaking whose only way of getting into your head is by inflicting a migraine.
Amidst the lackluster film, though, are a smattering of decent to fine performances, especially from Bosworth and Skarsgård. Bosworth especially does a fine job creating an ambiguity to Amy's character when it's needed. She bounces a bit from helpless to inured, especially in the few scenes where Amy has to stand up to David and tell him what a coward he's being. Luckily the actress is able to pull this off without it feeling jarring or unnatural. Skarsgård plays devilish charm about as well as anyone working today, and that gets brought in even though Lurie's way of shooting—some would call it lingering on—the actor is another indication of the director's misreading of the situation. Marsden is decent enough, even if he doesn't bring anything new to David.
It takes a lot more, though, than a handful of good acting to save a film like Straw Dogs, a series of overblown moments of tension that build and build to an unsatisfactory release, much like the air flitting out of an opened balloon. Rod Lurie wanted that balloon to pop. He wanted the loud bang to jar his audience, to shake them with horrific imagery and excite them with moments of satiating revenge. It isn't enough that he missed the ball with what Straw Dogs is supposed to say, that it doesn't even aim for the ledge where the film's true themes rest. This Straw Dogs doesn't even hit the ledge of excitement and diverting violence. Instead, it plummets all the way down to an oblivion.
Jeremy's Rating: 3 out of 10