Screen Rant’s Ben Kendrick reviews Straw Dogs

Original ideas are somewhat hard to come by these days – especially in Hollywood. We’ve seen blockbuster franchises built on 80’s nostalgia, board games and countless remakes of recognizable, as well as some not-so-recognizable, existing films. Now we can officially add Straw Dogs to the list of story ideas that Hollywood studio executives hope will enjoy a fruitful double dip.

Reimagining Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 film, Straw Dogs (which starred a young Dustin Hoffman), is Rod Lurie, a name most moviegoers will recognize as the writer/director/producer responsible for The Last Castle and Resurrecting the Champ. In an attempt to put his own stamp on the “lovers under siege” story, Lurie ditched the rural English setting, and subsequent international complexities, of the original for small town America. Does the change up pay off and make for a more relatable (and modern) psychological horror film or does Lurie strip an already thin plot of any substantial weight and potential enjoyment?

Unfortunately Lurie’s Straw Dogs is a mess of a film that does little more than rely on graphic violence as well as outdated stereotypes to keep the tension high. As previously alluded to, the original Straw Dogs storyline offered a much more compelling setup (with a number of factors to play on: socio-economic and nationality differences as well as significant disfunction in the couple’s relationship). Before the remake even gets started it’s already at a disadvantage, since the subtle change of location and less complicated protagonist pair strips the film of the unseen tensions that made the original so compelling. Instead, Straw Dogs 2011 seems to favor slasher film-like “heroes” and “villains” with paper thin “he’s not like us” motivations.

Kate Bosworth and James Marsden in Straw Dogs

While Hollywood might view the Straw Dogs storyline, which is based on the 1969 novel, “The Siege of Trencher’s Farm” by British author Gordon Williams, as provocative – it’s actually a pretty basic setup. David Sumner (James Marsden), who is a Hollywood screenwriter, and his wife, Amy (Kate Bosworth) leave the big city behind to spend some time in Amy’s Southern hometown – following the death of her father. As David tries to get aclimated to his new surroundings, he’s quickly pit against a group of protective locals. The group’s leader, Charlie (Alexander Skarsgård) is Amy’s high school boyfriend, and outwardly resents David for being an outsider and an intellectual. As tensions between the men rise, an increasingly violent set of events leads to an all out, bloody, siege of the couple’s house – forcing David to put aside his “violence is not the answer” approach and brutally fight for his family’s life.

While the storyline in the remake closely follows the original progression moment to moment, none of the scenes offer any compelling improvements to the narrative (and, as a result, actually detract from the success of the remake) – as if the primary filmmaking goal was to recreate the classic scenes in a modern (and domestic) setting, instead of compose a fresh take on the narrative that would make it even more terrifying, and timely, than the original. Not to mention, a lot of the ideas that Straw Dogs borrows from the original film do not translate successfully – making for some especially jarring character portrayals (David Werner’s aged “village idiot” is now a mentally handicapped young man portrayed by Dominic Purcell) as well as heavy handed thematic elements (David is working on a historical script about the siege of Stalingrad).

While performances are competent (not great) all around, the stereotype-heavy presentation of the “villains,” the self-described “rednecks” of Blackwater, have absolutely nothing unique to offer: they are a batch of beer drinking, God fearing, football loving, blue collar guys that love to hunt – and, of course, resent big city intellectuals. As events unfold in an increasingly violent set of circumstances, whenever the film flirts with complicated internal character conflicts, it nearly always abandons ship and locks back into trite and convoluted stereotypes.

Alexander Skarsgard as Charlie Venner in Straw Dogs

The lack of unique, or even interesting, characters wouldn’t be such a problem if the film was actually tense or scary – but for 5/6 of the film, there’s very little but awkward, and at best heated, banter between David and the team of local men. As a result, when things start to get especially violent, it’s hard to truly “believe” what’s unfolding – since the build up is mostly flat. Additionally, while the siege on the Sumner house is the result of several interwoven story beats, the thread that’s primarily responsible for the actual altercation is poorly implemented throughout the overarching narrative – as is nearly every character’s motivation at that moment.

In general, Straw Dogs appears to fancy itself as significantly more profound than what is actually in the film scene to scene – but nearly every attempt at something more than just play by play, and less successful, recreations of the original are glossed over too quickly or are so heavy-handed, such as the explanation of the “Straw Dogs” monicker, that it’s hard to be affected by the extreme violence perpetrated on screen. Instead, Straw Dogs revels in its violence and then fumbles around trying to make sense of what it had just presented – failing to communicate anything profound about the characters or their relationships. None of the brutality is “earned” through compelling and tense character drama – it’s just manipulative violence thrown at the audience to get them on Sumner’s side.

No doubt some moviegoers will defend the film by saying that it’s not supposed to be a character drama – it’s supposed to be a horror film. However, even if that were the case (which it’s not, given the amount of heavy-handed theme pumped into the project), Straw Dogs would be a lackluster horror movie, with very little compelling build up to the last set piece. The final “siege” scene definitely has some brutal moments but isn’t nearly cathartic enough to sit through the sluggish, and bumbling, build up. Recommendation: just rent the original Straw Dogs – which successfully delivers more compelling character drama, earned on-screen brutality, and true psychological horror.

If you’re still on the fence about Straw Dogs, check out the trailer below:

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Follow me on Twitter @benkendrick – and let us know what you thought of the film below:

Straw Dogs is now in theaters.

Our Rating:

2 out of 5