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Straw Dogs (2011)

Sony Pictures // R // December 20, 2011 // Region 0
List Price: $35.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted December 17, 2011 | E-mail the Author
Anyone who's ever taken a film class ought to have at least some appreciation for Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs. Yes, there's a slowly burning intensity and almost orgasmic release of graphic imagery that repulse many viewers. Still, it's a godsend for those of us who've ever been tasked to write an essay about film: Peckinpah implicating the audience in his displays of sex and violence, debates as to whether a nebbishy math professor's explosive bursts of bruality are acts of heroism or a man losing his soul, the way Amy relents in the middle of being raped and for a time seems to even enjoy it...there's so much ambiguity and so much subtext to explore that many gifted writers have arrived at astonishingly well-justified and diametrically opposed interpretations of the film. Rod Lurie's remake, on the other hand, doesn't offer much to write about at all. It's
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a home invasion thriller littered with largely uninteresting characters who twiddle their thumbs until it comes time for the climactic siege. Love it or hate it, Peckinpah's Straw Dogs is an indisputably important film that demands to be discussed; Lurie's is bland, disposable, and instantly forgetten.

The skeleton of the story remains the same. The original film revolved around a prickly mathematician (Dustin Hoffman) who's forced to defend both his hopelessly remote English cottage and his wife against a gang of bloodthirsty brutes. Rod Lurie's remake shifts the setting away from Cornwall and instead towards the Deep South. David is no longer a short, wholly unimposing intellectual but an impossibly handsome screenwriter with an action hero physique, played now by James Marsden. His wife Amy (Kate Bosworth) is a C-list actress who's returning to backwater Mississippi after inheriting her late father's home. It gives them a break from the hustle and bustle of L.A., David should be able to buckle down and finish his screenplay about the siege on Stalingrad (foreshadowing!), and I guess they get to supervise the repairs on the estate's hurricane-battered barn. David hires a bunch of local boys whose heydays as high school football heroes are now a lifetime behind them, including Charlie (Alexander Skarsgård), a polite, well-mannered ex of Amy's who still seems to be carrying a torch. David doesn't exactly fit in, tooling around in a $100K Jaguar while everyone else is driving beaten-to-hell pickup trucks...playing Chopin on vinyl while the roofers are out there blasting Molly Hatchet on a boombox...and he mostly passively-aggressively looks down on the rest of the townsfolk. Maybe if he'd made more of an effort -- if he didn't sneer down at them quite so much -- these good ol' boys wouldn', rape his wife and mount a brutal, bloody siege on his home. It's kill or be killed.

It seems as if the bulk of the extras on this Blu-ray disc are trying to justify the existence of this remake; I guess that's because Straw Dogs as a movie does such a poor job at that itself. Lurie clearly feels that he's correcting the mistakes of Peckinpah's admittedly imperfect film, but by and large, he strips away all of the subtext, nuance, and ambiguity, leaving whatever's left fully exposed on the surface. Similar to the remake of I Spit on Your Grave which obscured or cut away from most of the rape, Lurie diminishes the disturbing, raw intensity of the attack. This remake of Straw Dogs also crosscuts from the assault on Amy to her husband skulking through the woods with his shotgun at crotch level, pulling the trigger at the peak of the attack. Subtlety clearly isn't its strong suit. Though Lurie feels as if he's smoothened out Peckinpah's roughest edges, he leaves in the wholly uninvolving subplot with a lumbering simpleton, serving now as the single worst thing about both films. Throughout the original Straw Dogs, the intensity slowly but gradually escalated. Here, I'm sitting on my couch listlessly waiting for something to happen. There's a line clearly separating a slow burn from the simply tedious, and this remake crosses it. The stark, raw violence of the climactic siege in Peckinpah's film is glossed up to play like just another wildly over-the-top action flick. Even though some of these primal assaults are carried directly from the original film, there's nothing the least bit haunting or disturbing about them here. Rod Lurie dutifully plays many of the same notes but without any of the music behind them.

Kate Bosworth doesn't have much of a presence as Amy, less of a character than an object -- something to be possessed -- and although I'm sure that's entirely the point, it still strikes me as a dramatic misstep. My kneejerk reaction upon hearing that James Marsden would be stepping into the role first portrayed by Dustin Hoffman was that he was horribly miscast, but I'll admit to having misjudged him, at
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least to a point. Marsden infuses David with a convincing awkwardness: the sort of man whose insular nature complements his career as a writer, a fish-out-of-water who can't really decide if he cares about fitting in or not, and someone who's more than a little bit self-absorbed and condescending. His David isn't nearly as loathsome a character as Dustin Hoffman's, but he's certainly the less likeable of the remake's two male leads for much of the film, and again, that's entirely by design. On the other hand, the climax suffers somewhat from Marsden's presence. Having someone with the build and physicality of an action hero going through the usual action hero theatrics isn't nearly as impactful as Hoffman succumbing to the primal rage within. It's not a seemingly ordinary man consumed by fury and pushed past the breaking point; it's Die Hard in an old stone house.

It's difficult to find much of anything to complain about Alexander Skarsgård, however. There's just something immediately magnetic that radiates from him. His friends are stereotypes, sure, and Charlie isn't exactly the most richly written character in the history of cinema either, but a man with such soulful eyes who cares so deeply about his friends, family, and community...hell, he practically comes across as the hero for much of Straw Dogs. The allure he holds over Amy is also entirely understandable. If anything, Charlie is so compelling that when he takes his inevitably, irredeemably dark turns, it doesn't really feel earned. The supporting cast, meanwhile, is often frustrating. Walton Goggins is, as ever, a welcomed addition to any cast but is mostly squandered here. James Woods veers wildly over the top as a hot-tempered former coach, Dominic Purcell is grossly miscast as the village idiot who's only around to help nudge Straw Dogs towards its climax, and Willa Holland plays a 15-year-old knockout of a cheerleader who at no point acts like any rational person would because that'd get in the way of the plot.

Straw Dogs isn't ambitious enough to fail spectacularly. It's devoid of any real tension or suspense. Its violence isn't shocking or disturbing. The characters are flat and lifeless just about straight across the board, stepping away from the intriguing ambiguity that helped to color the original film. At best, this remake of Straw Dogs is a competent home invasion thriller. Unlike the original movie which has sparked such an endless amount of analysis and discussion, this remake is the kind of movie I watch slouched on my couch, just waiting for it to be over. It's two hours of Rod Lurie filing down the barbed edges of the 1971 film into something blunt and bland. Watchable but not exactly recommended. Rent It, I guess.

Straw Dogs' atmospheric cinematography translates remarkably well to Blu-ray. Its faintly gritty, filmic texture remains intact, showcasing a reasonably impressive level of fine detail and clarity. Contrast is robust throughout, and its largely muted palette reflects the ominously looming tone of the film. Benefitting from a healthy bitrate, the compression never once buckles under the weight of that sheen of grain. This Blu-ray disc is presumably culled from the digital intermediate and is in the sort of immaculate condition one would likely expect for a movie just a few months removed from its theatrical run. No complaints or concerns whatsoever.

The AVC encode for Straw Dogs spills across both layers of this BD-50 disc. The film's theatrical aspect ratio of 2.39:1 has been preserved on Blu-ray.

It looks as if Straw Dogs boasts a 16-bit DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack rather than the 24-bit audio I'm used to seeing in day-and-date releases, but unless you're staring at a bitrate meter, it's unlikely much of anyone would be able to spot a difference. With Straw Dogs being so much of a slow burn, the sound design tends to be rather subdued as well. For quite a bit of the film, the surrounds are reserved largely for the chitter of insects somewhere off in the distance. There's a nice sense of directionality at times as the camera cuts around, and there's also the reverb of some Southern-fried rock and the roar of a rowdy crowd at a Friday night football game. The subwoofer gets a decent workout throughout, from cracks of gunfire to the meaty thuds of people getting the shit knocked out of them. Not surprisingly, the soundtrack is at its most intense throughout the climactic siege, taking full advantage of every channel at its fingertips: haunting screams, ringing shotgun blasts, shattered windows, and thunderous explosions. It's an effective soundtrack and one that's certainly best experienced on a proper multichannel home theater rig.

A second DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack features a French dub. Also included are a Descriptive Video Service track as well as subtitles in English (traditional and SDH), French, and Spanish.

  • Audio Commentary: Writer/director Rod Lurie spends quite a bit of his commentary defending this remake, comparing and contrasting his film with the 1971 original, citing letters both to and from Peckinpah
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    as justification, and pointing out that it was Dustin Hoffman who compelled him to helm Straw Dogs in the first place. Lurie also speaks about the film that could've been, having mulled over a larger cast, changing the title altogether, and having shot perhaps excessively revealing footage of Amy teasing the roofers.

  • Featurettes (25 min.; HD): If a commentary that's largely devoted to defending Straw Dogs' existence isn't enough for you, there's also the eight minute featurette "Courting Controversy: Remaking a Classic", again comparing and contrasting this remake with the original film. "The Dynamics of Power: The Ensemble" (6 min.) takes a look at the relationships between these characters. "Creating the Sumner House" (4 min.) explores the production design that went into building the stone house where the bulk of the film is set, while "Inside the Siege: The Ultimate Showdown" (7 min.) delves into its destruction.

The Final Word
One of my favorite descriptions of Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs is that it's the work of a man sweating out his demons behind the camera. It's a film that, even forty years later, continues to spark intense emotional and intellectual responses in seemingly everyone that comes across it. Rod Lurie's remake of Straw Dogs, meanwhile, is...well, a home invasion thriller. It's a perfectly competent home invasion thriller, sure, but everything's carefully arranged on the surface. Take a moment sometime and read through some of the spectacular essays that have been written about Peckinpah's film. There's nothing about Lurie's remake that demands to be analyzed or hotly debated; it's all right there on the surface, devoid of any real nuance or subtext. Passably well-made but thoroughly unremarkable. Rent It.
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