Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #690
Number of Views: One
Release Date: September 16, 2011
Sub-Genre: Psychological Thriller
Country of Origin: United States
Box Office: $11,200,000
Running Time: 109 minutes
Director: Rod Lurie
Producers: Rod Lurie, Marc Frydman
Screenplay: Rod Lurie
Story: David Zelag Goodman, Sam Peckinpah
Based on The Siege of Trencher’s Farm by Gordon Williams
Special Effects: Jack Lynch
Visual Effects: Mark Stetson, Rocco Passionino
Cinematography: Alik Sakharov
Score: Larry Groupé
Editing: Sarah Boyd
Studio: Battleplan Productions
Distributor: Screen Gems
Stars: James Marsden, Kate Bosworth, Alexander Skarsgård, Dominic Purcell, Rhys Coiro, Willa Holland, James Woods, Billy Lush, Laz Alonso, Walton Goggins, Anson Mount, Drew Powell
Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫
 Jerry Fielding “I Got ’em All”
 Larry Groupé “Straw Dogs”
 Buckwheat Zydeco “Hey Good Lookin”
 Molly Hatchet “Flirtin’ With Disaster”
 Larry Groupé “Who’s In Charge”
It takes one helluva pair of cojones to attempt to remake a classic. Stray too far from the original template and you’re criticized for tampering with the formula, whereas remaining too faithful invariably leads to your vision being considered null and void. Much depends on the story you’re looking to retell and how well it holds up after so many years. However, when the film in question was made by a director with the unrivaled vision of the great Sam Peckinpah, it could be argued that you’re setting yourself up to fail from the offset.
When X-rated pot-boiler Straw Dogs arrived in 1971, it courted no end of controversy and, with the likes of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, William Friedkin’s The French Connection, and Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry all doing the rounds at the time, sparked furious debate over the amount of on-screen brutality in cinema. Indeed, Peckinpah had already ruffled feathers two years prior with his super-violent western The Wild Bunch and this one hit even closer to home for audiences.
There can be no question over Peckinpah’s visionary style and Straw Dogs highlighted his flair for operatic visuals quite beautifully as well as blurring the lines between black and white. However, many remembered it for the mean streak he showed during his closing act and the infamous rape scene, whereby Susan George’s character appeared in two minds as to whether she should be mortified or secretly aroused. As a result, it was banned from theaters and regarded as contemptible by many critics.
Forty years have passed now since Peckinpah’s film shocked and appalled in equal measures, and unsurprisingly attitudes have softened with regards to the level of barbarism it apparently celebrated. Personally, I think it did no such thing, and was far more contemplative than given credit for, with ambiguous characters and intentions that made for far more than the glorification of violence that it was charged as being. If nothing else, it demonstrated the true power of provocative cinema and deserves its standing as a bona fide classic.
Enter Israeli critic-turned-director Rod Lurie, whose unenviable task it is to update the formula for modern-day audiences whilst attempting to placate those who still hold the original in lofty esteem. His first move is to relocate the story, based on Gordon Williams’ novel The Siege of Trencher’s Farm, from the idyllic setting of Cornwall, England to the similarly green pastures of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, U.S. and change his unlikely hero’s trade from mathematician to aspiring screenwriter. Aside from that, he remains largely faithful to his forerunner, although with the glut of ultra-violent home invasion movies currently circulating, the impact is never likely to be anywhere near as potent. That said, while it’s inescapable that comparisons will be drawn between the two films, it would feel a tad unfair not to judge it on its own merits, particularly given that the world and opinions have altered so drastically since the turn of the seventies and few will have had the dubious pleasure of Straw Dogs.
Predictably, the lion’s share of critics dismissed Lurie’s effort out of hand and it struggled to recoup even half of its outlay at the box-office. That seems a real shame, as while devout fans of the original will find little here to get particularly excited about, it offers a well-made and played introduction to the kind of timeless tale that never becomes any less relevant. It’s not a great film, and expecting such would be massively unreasonable given the circumstances, but it is a damn good one and aided tremendously by some inspired casting and a number of strong performances. Lurie even finds time to wax intellectual, with numerous references to Stalingrad and a clear explanation of what the term “Straw Dogs” actually means. With the tools at his disposal, it’s questionable whether he could have done any better, and if nothing else, it offers a tense and unflinching power struggle between alpha men and meek mouse.
Local girl Amy (Kate Bosworth) returns to her Mississippi hometown with new husband David (James Marsden) closely in tow, looking to reconstruct her family home after her father’s passing and start a fresh life with her significant other. This suits intellectual city boy David down to the ground as it allows him to work on his latest script and the pair appear to have landed on their feet, despite the unforeseen tragedy that presented this opportunity.
David’s vintage Jaguar says everything we need to know about him; he is clearly a man with exquisite taste and Amy’s pretty toes look just divine perched upon his dashboard. Life is clearly rather good for the newlyweds and they appear both in-tune with one another and excited by the prospect of laying foundations for their future together.
However, the thing about small towns is that everyone knows one another’s business before too long and it’s almost impossible to head off for a nice quiet lunch without rubbing shoulders with an old acquaintance. Enter old flame Charlie (Alexander Skarsgård) and his boorish entourage Norman (Rhys Coiro), Chris (Billy Lush), and Bic (Drew Powell), and forget the tagalongs for a moment as Charlie evidently has unfinished business with Amy and wastes no time in picking up where they left off years back.
David sees no immediate threat and does what a well-meaning guy like David does in such scenarios – he smiles readily and politely, with a subtle hint of condescension that a self-confessed home boy like Charlie surely wouldn’t pick up on. While David flexes his mental biceps, Charlie does the same thing a little more literally, revealing the kind of lean, chiselled frame that he believes Amy is missing out on. Blissfully unaware of what he is getting himself into by associating with a man who only views him as a menial obstacle, David invites Charlie and his rednecked posse over to commence work on repairing their barn. Dick move Davey boy.
Have I not mentioned former football coach Tom Heddon (James Woods) yet? My humble apologies, I figured I’d let coach finish his beer in peace over on the bar stool to the right. Heddon may look like your average inebriated bar-bum on first impression, but his relevance here is critical as he would argue that he was instrumental in shaping the young minds around him into the young men they are today. A figure of great authority in these parts, Tom answers to no man and sees no reason why he should, given his public standing. Anyone messes with his 15-year-old daughter Janice (Willa Holland) and there’ll be hell to pay with coach collecting the ticket stubs. This includes anyone deemed cognitively inferior and the town has one such “retard” in mentally impaired local lad, Jeremy Niles (Dominic Purcell).
Anyhoots, let’s see how work is coming on over at the Summer house shall we? Steady would be the word here as Charlie and his fallen angels seem in no great rush to finish the job and far more interested in Amy’s refusal to wear a bra when out for her a.m. jog. Of course, she would argue that this is solely for David’s benefit and perhaps it is, but it’s also something of a red rag to a quartet of bulls and culminates in the kind of wolf-whistles and snide comments that she would surely have seen coming from a good country mile off.
That said, David is far too smart to entertain the green-eyed monster, and has already calculated that it won’t help in gaining any kind of acceptance with his “new buddies”. Charlie keeps him sweet by way of the most passive aggression imaginable, while David falls for his ruse hook, line and sinker, much to his bride’s mounting frustration.
The relationship between spouses is crucial here and it helps that Marsden and Bosworth have already played a screen couple previously. Their chemistry is sweet and unforced, both are likeable despite their faults (and indeed because of them), and it’s fascinating to watch the rot set in as their quaint little love nest gradually transforms into a battery coop.
Meanwhile, Skarsgård is exceptional in a role that requires far more nuance than the rowdy rabble his character associates with out of a sense of small town duty. In short, he is absolutely no dummy, and the actor strikes a rather glorious balance between brain and brawn throughout. Something tells him that his actions are wrong, but applying such reason would be regarded as treason in these parts and that makes him a product of his environment.
Then we have Woods and I have followed this man’s progress with the beady eye of a swooping kestrel ever since my primary introduction to his on-screen prowess over thirty years ago. Few can do edgy quite as effortlessly as he and here he is provided no end of gristle to chew on. When things eventually escalate, as we know only too well that they will, his is a short journey to downright despicable as he sets out his bar stool early on and stubbornly refuses to budge. We are about to learn about effect, but left under no illusion to the cause of any senseless madness incoming. Casting Woods is a stroke of genius, while Walton Goggins feels a tad under-utilized as whipping boy Jeremy’s keeper when he could phone in lout and make it unsettling.
Naturally, all eyes will be on the closing act as it is here where the true meat and potatoes lie and Lurie handles things decidedly well considering. Granted, it lacks a little subtlety, and could be accused of simply baiting its audience for a reaction to the tune of hearty cheers as yet another mangy mutt is put down in a manner far from uncertain. Things are admittedly streamlined but that doesn’t stop Straw Dogs from concluding with the kind of emotional wallop that it has built up to so patiently. But unlike Charlie and his hoons, it doesn’t threaten to outstay its welcome and is abrupt enough in its closure to leave the viewer with much to ponder. In this respect, it is job very much done.
Whether or not Straw Dogs is worthy of further investigation depends largely on your stance towards Peckinpah’s original. While timeless on one hand, it is hard to argue that it’s not a little long in the tooth forty years down the trail and it is here that Lurie comes good as routefinder. Taken on its own merits, it’s not a million miles from superb and succeeds as a home invasion movie where hostile takeover isn’t quite as systematic as with so many of its counterparts. One thing’s for sure, it certainly didn’t deserve the critical mauling it received upon release and we film aficionados need to take care of our own.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 7/10
Grue Factor: 3/5
For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: One thing that Peckinpah could never be accused of was flinching away from acts of barbarism and there is plentiful wince-inducing carnage bottlenecked into the final act to satisfy those yearning for some good old-fashioned All-American payback. Indeed, those of a weaker disposition may find themselves squirming at quite possibly the most agonizing looking splintered bone in modern cinema and it may make you think twice about jaywalking in the foreseeable. As for skin, well Bosworth teases our senses just enough to ensure that we don’t request she cover up, and while the actions of Charlie’s boys are far and away beyond lamentable, you can’t argue with their impeccable taste in women.
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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