Review: Straw Dogs (18) / Director: Rob Lurie / Screenplay: Rob Lurie / Starring: James Marsden, Kate Bosworth, Alexander Skarsgard, James Woods, Dominic Purcell, Walton Goggins / Release date: March 12th
James Marsden has made a career of playing nice guys who suffer at the hands of those with designs upon his wife. This is taken to its violent extreme in Straw Dogs, where the violent hicks are a lot less concerned with issues of consent than Superman, Wolverine or the lawyer in Enchanted ever were. Marsden plays screenwriter David Sumner, with his erstwhile Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) as Amy. The couple relocates to Amy's old hometown in the deep South, where smarmy David wastes little time in upsetting the locals, and the culture clash soon rises to a violent climax.
It's a well cast film, with True Blood's Alexander Skarsgard in fine fettle as sinister builder Charlie. The great James Woods is a welcome presence, playing the town's angry football coach. Marsden and Bosworth are fine as the leading couple, despite the fact that neither of them are particularly likeable. Only Dominic Purcell seems out of place. Some might say that he's perfectly cast as the village simpleton. He's reliably bad here, threatening to derail the whole film at one point. The presence of Walton Goggins, accents and location combine to make Straw Dogs to feel like an episode of Justified. Raylan Givens would soon sort this sleazy lot out.
As a remake of Peckinpah's controversial siege movie, Straw Dogs is a quite different beast. It's a slick, polished production, lacking the grime and the grit of the original piece. Like its stars, it's a prettier, more refined version of a story that shouldn't be pretty or refined. In this respect, it's reminiscent of the I Spit On Your Grave remake; technically better, but seems to miss the point of the original work.
Still, the transposing of proceedings from gloomy, grey England to hot, oppressive Southern USA makes the rising tension feel impressively palpable. Small Southland towns have become overexposed of late, as have their hillbilly antagonists, but Straw Dogs writes them better than most. There's a sense that it could maybe be avoided if only David were to dial back the superiority complex a little. And then the line is crossed, and suddenly the characterisation is all undone. There's no sympathy left for them – they're nothing more than a gang of whooping idiotic movie rapists.
Where would Straw Dogs be without its rape scenes? Again, there's a suggestion of consensual non-consent to some of it, and it all leaves a familiar foul aftertaste. Like the I Spit On Your Grave remake, the camera leers at its female star. There's a scene which sees Amy jogging in a pair of skintight bottoms and vest. Not far behind, her soon-to-be rapists, tongues agape. In seeing her like this, set to The Noisette's Never Forget You, The viewer is made complicit. Even the Of Mice And Men subplot sexualises its fifteen-year-old victim, giving her a lovely cheerleader outfit to wear.
It takes a long time to get started, but the siege is tense, bombastic and thrilling. It's during the action sequences that the film benefits from its newfound polish. Marsden does well as the geek turned action man, although he is a more conventional hero than Dustin Hoffman. The increased presence of Purcell is a shame; his extended bouts of melodramatic screaming and head shaking are tremendously irritating. His performance resembles Miko Hughes' in Mercury Rising. It was bad enough then - it's considerably more horrible when performed by a burly six-foot tall man who can't act.
In spite of its flaws, Straw Dogs is a tense, entertaining and occasionally thrilling piece of home invasion cinema. Its updated gloss brings the story an unexpected palatability. Whether this is a good thing remains to be seen. Some things just aren't meant to be pretty or slick. Straw Dogs is one of those things.
Extras: Commentary with Writer/Director Rod Lurie; Courting Controversy: Remaking a Classic; The Dynamics of Power: The Ensemble; Inside the Siege: The Ultimate Showdown; Creating the Sumner House: The Production Design