Is there a purpose to remakes? Aside from maybe William Friedkin’s attempt in Sorcerer to re-imagine Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear as something universal rather than Gallic, it’s usually just an exercise in regurgitation. This awful remake of Sam Peckinpah’s already deeply flawed but nobly imagined Straw Dogs(1971) is an typical case in point.
In the original, Dustin Hoffman and the endearingly scrubber tartish Susan George are a mixed class and religion-type couple oppressed and besieged by small town English country boy thugs. The slightly cross-eyed George is a dreadful actor, but her custard-dyed tresses and their black roots make for an endearing metaphor for the kind of deluded love match only the actual couple involved can never get past their sexual compatibility to see holistically until its too late. Sure, Hoffman chews the scenery, as per usual, but as George can’t act her way out of a wet bag, we feel pity for her. It was nowhere near a great film, but Straw Dogs was a huge box-office boffo hit at the time because it helped define the way rape and violence could be rendered palatable for both intellectual and voyeuristic thrill-seeking audiences by being photographed on grainy stock with lots of hand-held ‘chaotic’ shots. At a time when A Clockwork Orange left a lot of audiences feeling guiltily entertained but stupid, Peckinpah’s work could be written off by feminists as chauvinistic, and be used by the likes of me as great gender debate material that often got me laid!
In the new Straw Dogs, the roughage of all kinds is more or less exorcised. It simply becomes one more vengeance tale shot in the South, with good ol’ boy dialect and the usual redneck clichés replacing England’s West Country. Interestingly, Dustin Hoffman’s academic Jewboy mathematics nerd is replaced by a bookish but groovily in-shape goyish screenwriter David played by the square-jawed James Marsden. And how do we know he’s a nerd? Well, umm, he doesn’t watch football, he openly talks the talk about being an atheist and because he believes that the podunk town his wife comes from, Blackwater, Mississippi, offers something he can’t find in the Sodom and Gomorra of Los Angeles while he’s working on his screenplay masterpiece. “I like quiet!” he says. “Quiet is what I want!”
Meanwhile, his lovely blondie actress wife Amy(Kate Bosworth) is kinda/sorta ambivalent. Her tresses are tinted much nicer than George’s. After being written out of a T.V. show in which she was a regular, returning to Blackwater is both comforting and a razor-keen reminder of her roots. What to make of the local folk who dress like Larry the Cable Guy and all the women in old Burt Reynolds movies? Things go from bad to worse at the bar when David orders Lite beer and dares to pay for everybody’s libations with a --oh my God!-- a credit card! Well, all except Charlie (Alexander Skjarsgard) who ogles Ay-ma like a hungry glutton regarding a roast. Turns out Charlie, who ingratiates himself enough with David to get himself and a crew of pals hired to fix David’s rickety old roof has wickedness on his mind. Of course, it turns out Charlie and Ay-ma have a history.
David immediately clashes with Charlie and the crew when he objects to their raiding his fridge and playing Lynyrd Skynyrd and various other samplings of old school Southern rock at dawn. Not, however, enough to confront them. David seethes politely, while Ay-ma obsesses on David’s inability to confront anybody belligerent. Charlie and his boys act just like those mean ol’ big shots in Hollywood
Unfortunately, the neo Straw Dogs cuts out the major subplot of the original which involved a ’Special’ local who rapes adolescents and a clever bit where the workers are served a saucer of milk by an ambivalent Ay-ma after murdering the couple’s cat and hanging its corpse in a closet. Instead of rural ruthlesness and culture at war with David’s citified Jewboy sensitivity and over education, the conflict becomes moronically oversimplified and obfuscated between David’s liberal softy persona against redneck love of Jesus, football and guns. Indeed, one of Charlie’s crew’s obnoxious 4x4 truck has a bumper sticker that says: ‘Keep honking. I’m reloading!’ Ha! Ha! I get it. Jesus loves guns! Even the usually solid character actor James Woods can’t do much with the role of a jaded high school football coach who has turned all these twisted moronic redneck lumps of human clay into a team of rapists. This is because the script by Rod Lurie is so crass. Is this the Rod Lurie who wrote the brilliant The Candidate? My God, what happened?
Sex-wise, you get your money’s-worth of the usual stereotypes that so puzzle us big city hypocrites when we go slumming it in trailer park land. All these church going Protestant females seem to dress provocatively, but, you know, it’s the heat!!! The locals stare at Amy as she jogs braless around the neighborhood and you realize that they don’t sell sports bras in Mississippi for that reason. At any rate, Charlie and the boys ogle Ay-ma just too damned overtly. She tells David and what does he do? Yes, he suggests she dresses more, umm, demurely. “Oh, I dress for you!!!” she insists, but is soon seen getting fresh with the local boys again and peeling off her clothes like a serpent in mating season for all the workers. Hmmmm!
The rest of this yawn-inducing dross involves convincing the audience that the local males and females feel so hurt by David’s walking out of church in the midst of a sermon that they’d all passively participate or turn a blind eye to a gang rape. Thus when David--still supposedly uncomprehending of the fact that this redneck collective believes it owns the moral high ground--is confronted by Ay-ma, who would rather scream at him than call the authorities, he becomes the instrument of virtuous vengeance. The massacre which follows is neither cathartic nor even fast food for thought . He does, however, do more with the bear trap than Peckinpah! Good job with the bear trap, Rod!
Alexander Skjarsgard, who plays Ay-mas old high school boyfriend Charlie so well, actually brings so much gravitas to the part that Marsden and Bosworth look lost. The subplot , involving high school football and religion, makes the movie’s fulcrum teeter on the edge of being a red-blue mini-war. Avoid this rubbish at all costs!