Saturday, September 17, 2011

Straw Dogs
Descent Into Taboo, The Primal And The Unforgivable

Unholy and reckoning: James Marsden as David Sumner in Rod Lurie's "Straw Dogs" remake. 
Sony/Screen Gems


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Saturday, September 17
, 2011

Early on, "Straw Dogs" shows us prey.  A poor buck is caught in a forest.  A group of hunters converge.  They can choose a graphic ending for the buck or a painless blow.  They elect the latter, and director Rob Lurie does likewise in his remake of Sam Peckinpah's classic and controversial 1971 original drama based on its screenplay (which Mr. Lurie adapts) and Gordon Williams' book The Siege Of Trencher's Farm.

Instead of Cornwall, England, the scene is contemporary Mississippi.  Newlyweds Amy (Kate Bosworth) and David (James Marsden) move to Amy's home town of Blackwater after her father passes.  Amy is a Southern belle-made-good as an actress in Los Angeles.  David is a Hollywood screenwriter who uses the rustic surroundings as a perfect sanctuary to write his new screenplay.  Charlie (Alexander Skarsgård) is a local who revels in the memories of Amy and their previous intimate relationship.  Tensions flare after David hires Charlie and his workers to fortify David and Amy's cottage.  Amy is as disgusted with David and his reticence to confront wrongdoing as David is with violence.  Intimidated by men, David seeks refuge in the cottage. 

In Mr. Lurie's hands "Straw Dogs" is more standard thriller than thought-provoking moral psychodrama.  Far less ambiguous and harsh than its predecessor, this "Straw Dogs" is a straw puppy, taking the raw, intense power and unblinking honesty of Mr. Peckinpah's harsh, complex film and characters, and sanitizing the horrific violence Susan George's 1971 Amy endured.  Ms. Bosworth is great here as a bolder, less nuanced Amy, whose history with Charlie is more an ongoing closet affair than anything, even though she faces the violations Ms. George's character did.  In depicting a scene that was eight painful minutes in Mr. Peckinpah's film, Mr. Lurie's view is discreet and truncated, with Charlie as malefactor and voyeur.  The women, including Janice (Willa Holland), a teen cheerleader who develops a romance with an older man, aren't showcased in a sexual way, save for a moment at a window which sends one character into visual orgasmic-like convulsions.

The prime focus of Mr. Lurie's film is dueling masculinities, and the director goes out of his way to eroticize Mr. Skarsgård's chest and other physical attributes, as if answering Mr. Peckinpah, who so brazenly focused on Ms. George as an object of desire and violence.  Mr. Marsden's David is a weasel, a self-absorbed L.A. stereotype who believes in plastic currency and atheism.  He's more likely to pound the keys of his Sony VAIO laptop with Amen fervor than he is a Bible, even though David has a Goliath to face, in his heart as well as in front of him.  Charlie's rough "Deliverance" physicality shreds the landscape.  The antlers on the front of his truck could devour the Jaguar insignia perched on David's car. 

"Straw Dogs" makes its points more obviously and in grander strokes than the previous film, and updates the conflicts with many telegraphed punches.  The battle lines of class, sex, and justice are clear.  A black man (Laz Alonso) is now town sheriff, whereas forty years ago in Mr. Peckinpah's film a character remarks about "people beating the blacks".  The new Amy has an occupation, whereas the prior Amy's occupation wasn't apparent.  "Down home" is a metaphor for the pit of one's primal soul, and this new David will eventually go *there*, to a place that the trappings of his materialism masks.

David's metamorphosis is vigilantism waged against himself and his passivity.  His moral code is vague at best until then, and even after hell rages, you may wonder if he'll change forever.   

For all its forceful symbolism "Straw Dogs" is as remarkably genteel and polite as the Southern hospitality it flaunts.  Something is missing, and Mr. Lurie's over-directed film is safer than the house that will be attacked.  By risking nothing and playing a safe hand, the director does almost exactly what David does.  When judgment day comes it's less an exhortation or release of violent underpinnings than the end of an unremarkable thriller.  David is more nuisance and annoyance than villain, which he so clearly was in Dustin Hoffman's fully-realized portrayal four decades ago.

James Woods is near campy, funny as a boorish, local ex-football-coaching legend and intemperate man who sets out to get the mentally-challenged Jeremy Niles (a good performance by Dominic Purcell) for having inappropriate relations with his daughter Janice.  (For some reason I felt I knew all of these characters less well than those 40 years prior, and felt more removed from them.)

"Straw Dogs", whose title defines an ancient Chinese ritual where revered ceremonial figures would be discarded when they outlived their usefulness, is also about education for David, a tutorial in manhood and self-discovery.  He's constantly framed as an infantile, trapped rat, caught in the contours of the crook of someone's perched arm and elbow.  Will he escape or will he be crushed?  The repetitive hammers about  education though, make the film forced.  David is smug but he's a bigger simpleton than anyone.  With no history, he's a straw man, twisting in the wind, but no matter what: in a battle between a Hollywood & Highlander and a Hillbilly Hunk, you know who will prevail.

With: Drew Powell, Walton Goggins, Anson Mount, Rhys Coiro, Billy Lush, Kristen Shaw.

"Straw Dogs" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for strong brutal violence including a sexual attack, menace, some sexual content, and pervasive language.  The film's duration is one hour and 48 minutes.

COPYRIGHT 2011.  POPCORNREEL.COM.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.                Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW