A surprisingly solid remake, Rod Lurie’s Straw Dogs retains Sam Peckinpah’s dark vision of masculinity, even if it fails to reproduce the ambiguities and atmosphere of the original. Transposed from 1970s Cornwall to the Deep South, it sees Dustin Hoffman’s replaced by James Marsden’s effete screenwriter David, who moves to the backwater hometown of his blonde, desirable actress wife Amy (Kate Bosworth) only to incur the wrath of the locals, prompting a game of passive-aggressive one-upmanship that eventually escalates into horrible violence.
Like the original, at the heart of Straw Dogs lies the notion that all men are capable of brutality when their masculinity is under threat. Here that threat is from local labourers fixing up the couple’s farmhouse. Led by Amy’s old flame Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard), their resentment towards the urbanite in their midst leads up to a brutal sexual assault on Amy. But unlike Peckinpah’s film the morally questionable notion of Amy enjoying the act is removed in favour of underlining the misogyny of David, who shows no sympathy for the ogling that eventually leads to her ordeal.
The focus, then, is on male rivalry and how it can lead to all notions of civilisation falling to the wayside. In a nice touch not present in Peckinpah’s film, to this mix is added the presence of Skarsgard who, channelling his part in True Blood, is portrayed by Lurie as a muscular beast ordained in a selection of sweaty vests during his confrontations with David, an element that adds a strange layer of homoeroticism to the men’s sparring.
Unfortunately that is where the ambiguity of Lurie’s version ends, as the carousel of pantomime villains of this small hick town – including James Woods, seemingly having a whale of a time – rob the film of Peckinpah’s uncertainty over who the villains really are. The hunting scenes and the brutal farm siege are solidly gripping, and Lurie doesn’t shy away from David embracing his inner savage. But ultimately the new Straw Dogs expunges the nihilism that marked Peckinpah’s original vision, which may have been morally unpalatable in its depiction of cathartic violence , but was powerful enough to linger in the memory long afterward. Lurie’s version, by comparison, is better than one would expect, but is nothing like as unsettling, or compelling.