Straw Dogs: Rod Lurie’s Unnecessary Remake of Peckinpah Masterpiece

Screen Gems, September 16

For over a decade, Rod Lurie, a former reviewer and radio talk show host, has been trying to make interesting or passably entertaing movies.  However, in my very humble view, all or most of them have been artistic (and some commercial) failures.  Though a smart and keen observer of pop culture, Lurie is certainly not an instinctive filmmaker, not even a proficient craftsman; he simply doesn’t have it in him. Worse, he has not developed as a filmmaker at all—even in strictly technical matters, such as camera placement, camera movement, angle, POV, cutting, and editing.

Trailer: www.emanuellevy.com/?attachment_id=44234

Lurie has always been better with the conceptual aspects of his narratives (which he also writes), each of which revolves around a timely and relevant idea, and with his casting than with the execution of his films.   Indeed, once he cast his actors, they are left to their own devices, because he gives them roles of little significance in terms of what they say or do. to say or to do.  As a result, the performances in his pictures by otherwise splendid actors (Joan Allen, Robert Redford, Jeff Bridges) are just decent but not distinguished.

And now comes “Straw Dogs,” a remake of Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 masterpiece (in my view), starring Dustin Hoffman as a professor of Math, who finds out–despite his better insitincts–that, under the right circumstances, he’s capable of engaging in ferociously physical violence.  The 1971 film has become a cult work for a number of reasons. It’s a movie that c ame out after the political assassinations of the two Kennedys and Martin Luther King, and  in the midst of the Vietnam War and the vibrant social-protest movements.   The movie was released at the height of the brilliant (if also troubled) Peckinpah’s career, following “The Wild Bunch,” the director’s undisputed greatest work, made in 1969.

The new “Straw Dogs” is basically an unnecessary (and loose) remake of Peckinpah’s seminal work.  It’s  a shallow, disappointing film, which offers some visceral pleasures and cheap frills and thrills–but nothing more.  Which means that Peckinpah’s aficionados (including myself) have nothing to worry about the cult status of his 1971 work.

Lurie’s “Straw Dogs,” which mysteriously world-premiered at the Toronto Film Fest, will be distributed by Screen Gems on September 16, a date which sees the theatrical release of one of the year’s best action thrillers, “Drive,” starring the brilliant Ryan Gosling.   A winner of the Best Director kudo at the Cannes Film Fest, “Drive” is everything that “Straw Dogs” is not: sharply written, well-acted, supremely executed, technically impressive noir thriller, boasting, among many various pleasures, terrific chases, and action scenes, alongside a consistently engaging plot and a touching romance (between Gosling and Carrey Mulligan).

Why is the movie unnecessary?  Why is it at best inspired by Peckinpah’s work rather than an official remake of it?

For one thing, the viewers likely to see Lurie’s new movie don’t know (and/or don’t care) who Sam Peckinpah was. For another, Screen Gems, which specializes in making low-budget, trashy genre movies, is marketing the flick as a violent actioner, which it is. In contrast, Peckinpah’s film was much more than a routine thriller; it was a morality tale of the highest order.

In line with his previous films, the most impressive aspects of Lurie’s “Straw Dogs,” is the casting, with one major exception: James Marsden, who is handsome but cannot really act, as was evident in most of the thespian’s previous features.  Good looking, but not particularly photogenic or interesting for the camera, Marsden is a bland, old-fashioned actor, more effective in supporting than in lead roles (“Hairspray,” “Enchanted”).  Rest of the cast is actually good, and I will return to this point later in my review.

Though following the basic structure of Peckinpah’s text, Lurie has made a number of significant alterations.  First, he changed the professions of the two protagonists, the married couple, whose lives are threatened by a bunch of hoodlums.  David Sumner (Marsden) is now a Hollywood scribe, and his wife Amy (Kate Bosworth, in a really convincing turn) is a beautiful actress.

When the tale begins, David and Amy move back to her small hometown in the Deep South after her father’s death. They expect a warm welcome, they wish to be embraced by the South’s famously friendly and hospitable ways.   Initially, David and Amy’s plan is to orchestrate the sale of the family home in Blackwater, Mississippi, which has fallen into disrepair. David hopes that the place’s quiet, uneventful life will enable him to concentrate on finishing the screenplay he’s been working on.

But we know better, because we have seen this before.  Appearances deceive and all is not as bucolic as it seems. In fact, the very arrival of the Sumners stirs up long-dormant tensions, and so, in lieu of smiling faces, there’s animosity and potential conflict from the very start.

Upon arrival, Amy resumes her position as the hometown celebrity, which leaves hubby David out, making him even more insecure than he had been about his wife’s past; he begins doubting her statements and questioning her behavior.  Gradually, latent tensions build in their marriage and old conflicts re-emerge with the locals. Amy’s former beau Charlie (Alexander Skarsgård), along with his fellow former football teammates Bic (Drew Powell), Norman (Rhys Coiro) and Chris (Billy Lush) push the limits of David’s tolerance and the Sumners’ marriage, forcing them to re-evaluate each other and their relationship.

Turning point occurs when the daughter of the former football coach Tom Heddon (James Woods) disappears, and Tom takes the law into his own hands, enlisting Charlie and his clique in his searching efforts for her.  This, along with other incidents (some random, some intentional), sets in motion a chain of escalating events that ultimately leads to an explosively violent confrontation.

Soon, the duo finds themselves facing an ominous crisis, whose proportions escalate to a life-and-death, kill or be killed, situation.  Will the crisis bring the best and/or the worst in the Sumners’ marriage, which is far from being balanced or happy?  Will the presumably quiet and naturally peaceful David rise to the occasion and find the necessary strength to defend and protect his wife and himself?

Superficial in narrative as well as in characterizations (of both the lead and supporting actors),  this “Straw Dogs” is devoid of any meaningful socio-political context–the story could have taken place anywhere. Moreover, it has little to say about the nature and source of moral and physical violence, which was a recurrent theme in all of Peckinpah’s work, including the 1971 “Straw Dogs,” and one of the reasons why we film scholars consider him to be a genuine auteur.

One of the biggest surprises is the inclusion of such a superficial, borderline exploitation film as an official selection of the Toronto Film Fest, for this “Straw Dogs” has little art or even craft in it.

Even if we disregard or forget the fact that it’s inspired by Peckinpah, Lurie’s “Straw Dogs” is a schlocky, mildly suspenseful thriller, a generic item that belongs to the broader category of “invasion into privacy” flicks.

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