Firstly, a one-paragraph summary for those of you anxious about spoilers. Or indeed about reading a review that spends as much time talking about the original movie as its remake.
Like Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot Psycho, Straw Dogs is a tribute to a classic movie that was notorious in its day. It’s by no means awful. It’s very well made. In fact, if I have a criticism, it’s that it’s too well made.
If you were born much after 1960, you may well not have seen Sam Peckinpah’s grim, bloody 1971 drama Straw Dogs. It doesn’t often get aired on TV and it’s not the kind of fuzzy feel-good DVD that gets pulled out when the family come around.
For that reason alone you can see why director Rod Lurie thought the world might be ready for a remake.
Despite transferring the action from 1970s Cornwall to contemporary Mississippi Lurie’s remake is pretty faithful to the overall shape of the original. At least in a literal sense.
Lurie hasn’t re-examined Gordon Williams’s original novel, The Siege at Trencher’s Farm, for his remake. The screenplay of this new film is credited to Lurie, Sam Peckinpah, and the screenwriter of the first version, David Zelag Goodman.
In terms of spirit the modern version is a world away from the Peckinpah’s brutal tale of torment and revenge.
That doesn’t mean to say it’s a bad film, not by any means, but I had a few problems with it.
Peckinpah depicted scenes of violence, murder and (notoriously) rape in a way that made these unequivocally unpleasant things seem unequivocally unpleasant.
If I have a problem with the US transfer is everything’s just a bit too nice. James Marsden and Kate Bosworth are very easy on the eye, sure. Even if James has traded in his Cyclops visor for some geeky glasses. They’ve got a terrific car too. The primary antagonist, Alexander Skarsgård – who I still think would have made a great Thor – is an undeniably handsome fellow. Even the village idiot character played by Dominic Purcell looks like a pre-freakout Mel Gibson.
The somewhat cryptic title is cleared up for us. Everyone’s motivations are clear and comprehensible, and the whole movie is neat.
It’s the neatness that I don’t like. It’s probably unfair to keep comparing this film to a movie made over 30 years ago but they did go ahead and give it the same title.
Violence, real violence, is a horrible thing to see.
There’s a notorious rape scene in the 71 film which has been discussed in great detail by cleverer people than me, so I’m not going embarrass myself by commenting on that.
Certainly there’s more ambiguity in this new version, but you’re still left with this nasty feeling that you’re being asked to see a rape victim as somehow complicit if not actually willing.
That pivotal moment in the new film follows the same edit structure, intercutting between the incident itself and a hunting scene in which James Marsden’s male protagonist is lured away from his wife and home.
Your view may of course vary: from a personal perspective I am fine with the kind of cartoon violence depicted in superhero movies but if we’re being shown a ‘real life’ scenario I expect the acts and their consequences to be depicted honestly and not glossed up for entertainment purposes.
Now that I’ve got that out of my system, let me try to sum up my feelings about the film as a whole. It’s a good, well-made drama that adheres closely to the structure of its progenitor but adds a surface level of gloss that will, I suspect, make it far more palatable to US audiences.
Who are, let’s be candid, the people that really matter in a commercial sense.
When I saw Straw Dogs as a young man it joined a select group of films (such as Deliverance, Southern Comfort, The Wicker Man) which convinced me that the great outdoors was no place for an effete would-be poet from the Big City.
I got over that silly preconception in the end, but Straw Dogs 2011, like its near-relative The Retreat, has gone a long way towards sending me back to that point of view.
Don’t go on holiday. Stay home and rent a video instead. Straw Dogs, maybe.