The setting has been moved from the British countryside to the swamps of Mississippi, and the lead actors got better looking, but Rod Lurie’s “Straw Dogs” is essentially identical to the 1971 Sam Peckinpah thriller he’s remaking.
Names, graphic details, bits of dialogue, even a parallel editing structure that unfolds during a pivotal moment - they’re all here. And the themes and messages that were problematic in the original exist here, as well.
It’s a movie that purports itself to be an indictment of violence, a critical exploration of the depraved depths to which man can sink when pushed. Yet Lurie (“The Contender,” ‘’Nothing But the Truth”), as writer and director, depicts this brutality in vivid detail, to the point of almost fetishizing it. Similarly, James Marsden’s character - a mild-mannered, Harvard-educated screenwriter - only truly gains the respect of his disdainful attackers, and only finds his own sense of self-worth, once he unleashes the primal fury he never knew he had inside of him in order to protect his wife and their home.
At least Peckinpah’s film had societal context on its side. Dustin Hoffman starred as a pacifist mathematician who was happy to move with his wife (Susan George) back to her family’s farm in order to escape the pervasive feeling of unease in the United States during the Vietnam War. The surly locals viewed him as a coward, and forced him to prove himself otherwise.
In Lurie’s “Straw Dogs” - which, like the original, is based on the novel “The Siege of Trencher’s Farm” - mere classism seems to be the source of conflict, with a touch of xenophobia. Marsden and Kate Bosworth, as husband-and-wife David and Amy Sumner, pull up to her family’s small-town farm in a vintage, $100,000 convertible Jaguar after her father’s death. They try to pay for burgers and beers at the local bar and grill with a credit card, instead of using cash like regular folks do. David doesn’t really like football and he’s never been hunting.
All of this makes him seem weak, makes him a target, and makes the beautiful Amy look like easy pickings to her lustful ex-boyfriend, Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard of “True Blood”), who’s still thriving on his popularity as a high-school sports star years later. Charlie and some of his idiot buddies offer to help mend a barn on Amy’s property that was damaged during a hurricane, and every exchange between him and David is heavy with uncomfortable subtext. Whereas Hoffman found a sarcastic edge to deflect the awkwardness of these moments, Marsden is almost too genteel.
Passive-aggressive gestures devolve into outright threats, followed by a physical attack that will still seem startling even if you’ve seen the original. It all culminates with a lengthy siege on the house, led by the town’s alcoholic former football coach, played by a volatile and frightening James Woods.
If nothing else, “Straw Dogs” is undeniably suspenseful, thick with menace from the very beginning. Working with cinematographer Alik Sakharov, who shot dozens of episodes of “The Sopranos,” Lurie creates a steamy, immersive sense of place. It’s easy to imagine tensions boiling over on an amped-up Friday night after too many beers at the high-school football game.
If only such craftsmanship were in the service of more than mere titillation.