Straw Dogs is an artful provocation — a meditation on masculinity and societal mores in the guise of an explosive thriller. While remaking Sam Peckinpah's controversial 1971 classic, writer-director Rod Lurie (The Contender, The Last Castle) has kept the plot virtually intact.
What makes the two films feel radically different is tone. Where Peckinpah was borderline nihilistic, Lurie is unabashedly humanist, simultaneously celebrating and mourning the primal savagery we all harbor within us — a savagery that has been lulled into dormancy by civilization.
On paper, James Marsden and Kate Bosworth seem like odd substitutes for Dustin Hoffman and Susan George: These young, attractive actors are best known for their work in comic-book movies (X-Men, Superman Returns) and comedies. But their casting turns out to be a stroke of genius — so far removed from the stars of the original film that the inevitable comparisons are rendered moot. Marsden and Bosworth, both delivering career-high performances, make these characters their own.
The story remains simple: screenwriter David Sumner (Marsden) and his wife, Amy (Bosworth), an actress, move from the West Coast to her small hometown in Mississippi to restore and then sell her family home. The locals remember Amy fondly — especially her ex-boyfriend Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard), a former high school football star whose greatest triumphs are behind him. Charlie is obviously still in love with Amy, but he's respectful of her marriage and doesn't overstep his boundaries — at least for a while.
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The trouble begins when the Sumners hire Charlie and his crew to fix their roof. The workers' constant presence and rude behavior — one of them walks into the house uninvited and takes a beer from the fridge without asking — gradually take a toll on the marriage. Hairline cracks become fissures. David suggests Amy stop dressing so provocatively ("Maybe you should wear a bra"). She responds with anger, claiming she dresses that way for him. The word coward is flung around.
The men sense David's emasculation: They can practically sniff it in the air, and they grow bolder in their transgressions. Charlie admires Amy from afar, hammer in hand. An aura of menace develops. Suddenly, even the most commonplace act seems fraught with danger.
In Peckinpah's Straw Dogs, we watched the characters from a distance, like lab rats in a clinical study of marital dysfunction, but we never related to them as people: They were strange and unknowable. In Lurie's version, we genuinely like the Sumners and understand their union — David is essentially the audience surrogate — so we feel the tension in the gut as the couple face increasingly threatening intrusions and violations.
This Straw Dogs remake argues that we are products of our environment and that we learn to survive by embracing the attitudes and values around us, even when they contradict our own instincts. When a bored David walks out on a church sermon, he's not aware of the offense he's committing against the locals. But he, like Amy, will eventually learn by force.
Much like Peckinpah's film, the new Straw Dogs climaxes with an eruption of extreme violence, and the sequence is cathartic and corrosive. There is a great tragedy to the bloodbath, but there is great victory, too. You can push people only so far before they break — or start to fight back. The conflagration that ends Straw Dogs is more triumphant than lamentable: Sometimes, you have to be taken to the edge of the abyss to find out who you really are.