Equal measures smug and savage, Rod Lurie's infuriating remake of Sam Peckinpah's vengeance thriller Straw Dogs still packs a visceral punch. An exploitation picture built on redneck cliches and big-city liberal outrage, it's not all bad. But it is a pretty unpleasant wallow in the obvious.
Lurie, whose career has become a series of unreleased or underreleased failures since The Contender, has cleverly reset the tale, that of a mild-mannered bookish and emasculated city dweller (Dustin Hoffman in the original, James Marsden here) challenged, bullied and battered by brutish, primitive locals, from England to Mississippi.
In the small town where his hot-actress wife, Amy (Kate Bosworth), grew up, God, guns and goal posts are the measure of a man. Beer swilling and deer hunting, in and out of season, is the "way of life." David (Marsden) tips too generously, drives a flashy vintage car whose tires he doesn't know how to change and rolls up the cuffs of his dungarees. He sings. He jumps rope. He prefers light beer. The locals see him and think "pansy." Or worse.
Hiring a bunch of them, including Amy's high school beau (Alexander Skarsgard), to fix the roof of the barn on the family farm Amy inherited is just asking for trouble. She is way ahead of her screenwriter husband on this. He's too overawed by the staggering collection of William Faulkner/Tennessee Williams cliches that Lurie slaps in the script — the simpleton with a history of taking sexual liberties with the local girls, the drunken, belligerent ex-coach (James Woods) who threatens one and all, his harlot cheerleader daughter who flirts with the slow-witted guy (Dominic Purcell). These characters are all tolerated, because "we take care of our own," as they say in all the old Southern movies and plays.
All that's missing from Lurie's dated and limited research is Blanche Dubois and "the kindness of strangers."
David, writing a script set at the Battle of Stalingrad, listens to his Tchaikovsky and Beethoven as the redneck roofers blast out Molly Hatchet. They, especially Charlie (Skarsgard), challenge him repeatedly. He bends over backward, trying to fit in, going along to get along.
In the "code" of such tales, we know David is asking for trouble. He's gun-shy, smaller than every man in town and yet still expecting to live by civilized big-city rules. Amy knows better. Maybe she's seen the original film. Every time you give a bully an inch, he takes a mile — or liberties with your wife.
One "improvement" stands out. Peckinpah rather famously forgot to leave out the Chinese proverb that gave the original film its title. Lurie has David explain it in a moment that feels like a class recitation.
It's not a terrible film, but Straw Dogs, this time around, does push the wrong sorts of buttons. It veers from its social commentary into the trite and bloody, with a finale that is unimaginative and rote. Lurie, desperate to make something people will see, has bloodied his hands and sullied his motives to make a movie that is as ugly as it is out of date.