Thursday, July 5, 2012

Straw Dogs (2011)


Director: Rod Lurie
Starring: James Marsden, Kate Bosworth, Alexander Skarsgard, James Woods, Dominic Purcell, Laz Alonso, Willa Holland,Walton Goggins, Anson Mount
Running Time: 110 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

I cringe whenever I'm about to see a remake of a classic film I'm very familiar with or have great affection for. It's almost impossible to watch without comparing it, sometimes scene-by-scene, to the original. Such a comparison almost always ends unfavorably for the remake. Fortunately or unfortunately, in the case of Rod Lurie's re-imagining of Sam Peckinpah's controversial 1971 ultraviolent classic Straw Dogs, I'm extremely familiar with the original, but not altogether opposed to the idea of remaking it. Following its release late last year, one of the major complaints from critics and audiences alike was that this was merely a modernization, following exactly the same plot lines and exploring the same themes as its predecessor. Which begs the question: If the original's a classic and Lurie hardly changed a thing, how could it be a failure? And therein lies the inherent contradiction with remakes. As many as there are each year, it seems we still haven't found a way to come to terms with their purpose. This version does make some little changes, in addition to a major thematic adjustment most missed. Whereas the original clearly argues in favor of an animal instinct residing inside all men, this take is more interested in exploring society's definition of manhood. Who's to blame for the events that eventually unfold is also more ambiguous, while the one famously ambiguous scene from the original is made clear as day. Lurie's presentation isn't as subtle, but it's tension-filled, and definitely not the horror "torture porn" it was strangely advertised as.

When screenwriter David Sumner (James Marsden) and his TV actress wife Amy (Kate Bosworth) return to her hometown of Blackwater, Mississippi to rebuild her recently deceased father's house. Their arrival brings Amy's ex-boyfriend Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard) and his three friends (Rhys Coiro, Billy Lush, Drew Powell) out of the woodwork and in an attempt to extend an olive branch, David hires them to fix the roof of the barn. With his manner of speak and dress, the well-to-do David immediately sticks out like a sore thumb in town, unable to fit in and at times displaying a condescending attitude toward Blackwater's customs. Perhaps out of jealousy that he's Amy husband or maybe just merely the fact he doesn't like him, Charlie and his gang begin subtly taunting and harassing both of them. As it escalates, David's insistence at avoiding any type of confrontation drives a rift in their relationship with Amy instigating Charlie and his gang to prove a point, putting both their lives in danger and forcing him to step up, or maybe down, to their level.

As much as the commercials have tried to convince you otherwise, this isn't your routine black and white, good vs. evil thriller. And like the original, it isn't a typical horror film despite many scenes providing more than a fair share of psychological terror. There's definitely a slow burn toward the climax, for which Lurie should be commended as I'm sure the pressure was on from the studio to reboot this as some kind of relentless gore fest. Changing the location from England to the deep South (replacing the British working class with Gulf Coast rednecks) was an inspired decision that ends up benefiting the mood and atmosphere, while also bringing the culture clash uncomfortably closer to home for American audiences. The couple's Hollywood occupations don't earn points for subversion or subtly, but it does seem to create an even greater rift between David and and the townspeople he seems to look down on. Or does he? What can easily be construed as condescension could almost equally be interpreted as ignorance (such as in a key scene when he walks out during church service) or just simply not fitting in and overcompensating to cover for it.

The power of the story (adapted from Gordon Williams novel, The Siege of Trencher's Farm) has always been it's realism and ability to put the viewer in the middle of a moral circumstance that could easily occur. At worst, David's a wuss willing to do just about anything to avoid a conflict, even when the situation absolutely necessitates it. Arguably his hesitance makes the ordeal worse, letting the problem fester until finally exploding. At best, he's a normal and responsible guy who could easily be defended for showing patience and trying to work issues out with something other than his fists. According to Amy, whatever he's doing isn't enough and when David's response to her is to "wear a bra" when the gang's leering at her, the gloves come off as she intentionally baits them with her body. The infamous rape scene is presented less ambiguously and as an overt act of violence, mostly doing away with the notion that Amy could have "enjoyed" it. But given her actions up to that point and the animalistic nature of the story, discerning viewers couldn't be blamed for still at least considering the possibility.

Physically, James Marsden is miscast, seeming on the surface too much of a pretty boy to fill Dustin Hoffman's nerdy mathmatician shoes from the original. Marsden solves that problem by wisely not attempting to and offering up a completely different take on the character. He need not necessarily be believable as a full-blown geek, but instead a  passive-aggressive people pleaser who living in his own bubble. Marsden does a great job fleshing that out, while at the same time making you feel empathy for the no-win situation David finds himself in, which isn't all his doing. Bosworth's task isn't as daunting in terms of the shoes she must fill, but she's as perfect a fit as for this as she wasn't for Lois Lane, giving one of her best performances as a woman taking power of her sexuality while at the same time pressured into subverting it. And as for the more emotionally disturbing scenes, she's more than up for it. With a southern drawl and seductive smirk, True Blood's Alexander Skarsgard really steals the show as Charlie, smoothly underplaying everything to the point where it's almost difficult not to like the guy until all hell breaks loose. Even then, he never resorts to playing him as a full blown psychopath, keeping it cool all the way through. It's to his credit that lines between good and evil seem so blurred. That I have problems even remembering the actor who originated the role proves Skarsgard must have done something right.

A major sub-plot involving the town's hotheaded former football coach Tom Heddon (James Woods) and his teen daughter Janice's (Willa Holland) infatuation with mentally handicapped man Jeremy (Dominic Purcell)  is over-the-top to say the least. It's definitely wasn't this insane in the original, with Purcell oddly resembling Steve Carell on steroids and a terrifying Woods devouring each scene as if it were his last day acting day on Earth. Had nothing else in this movie worked (which it thankfully does), this would still be worth seeing for Wood's performance, if only just to say you saw it and survived. Ironically enough, it most resembles his oscar-nominated turn as white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith in 1996's Ghosts of Mississippi, at least in terms of outright hostility.  His daughter's clearly acting out to stick it to him, but the tragic consequences of that are unintended. This and the main story seemed to merge better in the original despite Lurie deviating very little from the source.

The eventual climax is thrilling, if a little too slickly filmed. It's only here where it becomes apparent we're watching a modern re-interpretation. The rest of it exists in some kind of bizarre 70's time warp, which isn't such a bad thing. The other little changes are justifiable as well, even if the jury's still out as to whether modernizing a film improves upon on it by simply making the material more timely. It all still feels a little routine, if powerful. But that the eventual violence still feels shocking and unsettling in this era proves that it was the context and ideas, not the violence itself, that made the original so unnerving. It's recreated here to chilling effect, with the original and remake both somehow coming out of this looking better as a result.

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