Comparisons to the original are unavoidable, and it would be churlish to review Lurie’s remake without some reference to the original, though it must also be judged on its own merits. This is no Gus Van Sant/Psycho style shot- for-shot remake, but Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, itself based on the novel The Siege of Trencher’s Farm, is obviously the blueprint.
James Marsden and Kate Bosworth star as David and Amy Sumner, respectively a screenwriter and actress. They have relocated from Los Angeles to the home of Amy’s deceased father in Blackwater, Mississippi, replacing the Cornish setting of the original. Amy’s return, and particularly the existence of her husband cause tension immediately upon their arrival in a town simmering with hostility. Amy’s ex-boyfriend Charlie, played by Alexander Skarsgard, in particular is put out by the situation, treating David courteously at first, though with a barely hidden simmering resentment. Charlie and his pals are employed by David to repair the barn roof at the Sumner house, and their distaste for David soon escalates into distasteful pranks, and eventually, following an incident with a mentally impaired local, violence.
Where Peckinpah’s original managed to sustain an air of discomforting tension throughout, Lurie’s remake somehow seems flat and sporadically dull. The motivations for the incidents that occur between David and the local boys, and particularly the escalation in their severity, are unclear, and in some cases seem completely out of the blue. We are expected to believe they have developed a seething hatred for the man, but this isn’t effectively developed on-screen. Lurie throws the beginnings of several explanations up in the key scenes, but never follows through on them, leaving too much for the audience to decide for ourselves. I also found myself strangely distracted by the score. There is a very generic, foreboding score played under nearly every scene, whether it is warranted or not. It’s almost as though the filmmaker became aware that the scenes between the key moments were doing very little to tell and progress the story, so tried to use music to suggest what was not being said.
The violence, both physical and sexual, avoids being gratuitous or exploitative, which is refreshing in the current climate of the Saw movies, and the likes of the deplorable I Spit On Your Grave, with the right level of ambiguity at the key time. Skarsgard manages an impressive aura of menace throughout, without overplaying it. The show is stolen, however, by James Woods as the town drunk, an ex-football coach on a hair-trigger of violence. To be fair, it is the showiest role, but it is a prime example of what a talented and experienced actor can bring to a film that is lacking in energy until the explosive finale. This, finally, is where justice is done to Peckinpah’s original. The violence is organic and hard-hitting, with Marsden doing an admiral job of portraying a pacifist’s descent into crazed violence sympathetically, whilst also keeping it believable.
A great final act, however, cannot fully make up for a film that stutters its way there, more a string of key moments strung together with plodding scenes and, aside from Charlie and David, two-dimensional characterisations. It’s not a badly made film by any stretch of the imagination, it’s just a little uninspired. No one was expecting Lurie’s remake to outdo Peckinpah’s original classic, but I’d rather he’d brought something radically different to the material than trot out a relocated carbon copy devoid of the artistry and tension of the original.
Rod Lurie is given a chance to explain himself with a commentary track, and he doesn’t ignore the elephant in the room. He spends at least half of the movie explaining why his is the superior version, when he perhaps would have been better off explaining some of his choices more. Interestingly, he does admit his original screenplay differed a lot more to the original movie, but was pressured into bringing it more in line. There are also the usual short ‘making of’ featurettes, most of which you can probably find online.