Review: Straw Dogs
by Britt Hayes
Screenwriter David Sumner and his actress wife, Amy (James Marsden and Kate Bosworth), leave Hollywood for Amy’s childhood home in the south – a place where David can work on his latest screenplay in peace. Once they arrive, though, all the honey-coated nostalgia from Amy’s youth quickly dissipates, as tensions escalate between the couple and the locals, including Amy’s former high school boyfriend, Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard).
A remake of the Sam Peckinpah film from 1971 of the same name, Straw Dogs is a grimy tale of baser instincts, of men motivated and driven by pure id, and the meaning and consequences of being a coward. Unfortunately, this film’s tonal disparities never allow for these messages to speak clearly or eloquently. Director Rod Lurie (The Last Castle) only seems to know what he wishes to say because it’s already been said in a better film, though he’s either unable or unwilling to convey anything poignant.
Straw Dogs concerns itself very little with the conflicts between Amy and David, though there is a brief dialogue exchange regarding Amy’s belief that David is a coward, but it is never the driving force it needs to be. Instead, Lurie chooses to focus on the good ol’ boys of Amy’s youth – the football players (including Amy’s ex) hired by David to repair the old barn on his property, the former alcoholic football coach (James Woods in a delightfully scenery-chewing turn), and a bewildering arc involving a brain-damaged Iraq war veteran (Dominic Purcell), lovingly referred to by the townsfolk as “retarded,” of course.
Straw Dogs begins as a thriller, with stress simmering just beneath the surface, ready to break into a full boil at any moment. And it’s this dramatically thrilling first half of the film that – while riddled with southern clichés and near-agonizing characterizations – feels the most genuine and promising. There’s a moment where something truly deplorable falls upon Amy, creating a distinct fork in the narrative path. Instead of telling David what has happened, when she has every reason to speak up, she chooses to remain silent, thus forgoing the opportunity to create legitimate motivation for the action that follows.
Straw Dogs spends an inordinate amount of time with Dominic Purcell’s character, Jeremy Niles, trying and failing to create a parallel between his arc and the cruelty inflicted on Amy. Janice (Willa Holland), a 15 year old cheerleader and daughter of the temperamental former football coach, has taken a liking to Jeremy, and her daddy’s none too pleased. The film is so tonally dissonant that much of the first half of the film is spent painting Jeremy as a laughable character, while vilifying the locals for being short-sighted, judgmental, ignorant pricks. As Jeremy’s story reaches a head within the overall narrative climax, the same vilified locals become nearly validated in their malicious behavior.
It’s not that the violence or brutality is outright offensive; instead it’s the poorly written characters, who are often willfully idiotic and shallow (particularly our protagonists), that foster resentment toward the brutality because it’s so unjustifiably cruel and needlessly hateful. There’s a basic thought that a film in this vein that evokes uneasiness and anger in the viewer has done its job – and this is often true of horror films such as Martyrs or Last House on the Left – but Straw Dogs only angers in the sense that it is almost insulting in its lack of depth, both in character and plot. There are opportunities for it to speak with nuance to the animalistic urges and desires inherent in mankind, as well as the idea of being a coward – is it braver to fight back or to take the high road and abstain from violence? – and these are interesting ideas, but they’re only ever teased and never explored.
And for a film that’s so damn bloody in its climax, Straw Dogs feels awfully bloodless; the relationship between David and Amy is never believable, as the two are all giggles and facetious cuddles, cheating their bodies obviously to the camera as if they’re acting in first year college theater. They are too self-aware, appearing as actors and not as characters – they exist and act next to, but seemingly not with, one another.
Still, Kate Bosworth gives an excellent performance, and although Amy makes absurdly befuddling decisions, she is ultimately the stronger presence. There is a scene where she takes a jog sans bra, so obviously sexualized that it began to read as a cheap, predictable ploy to elicit the jockish outcry of “she had it comin’,” but it’s followed splendidly (and thankfully) by a discussion with David about her appearance, and how she shouldn’t be upset by the leers and drools of the local boys since she chose to dress scantily. Amy is defiant, believing that she dresses to please her husband, and any salacious implications are purely the fault of those who choose to view her as an object; furthermore, who says that to be respected one must wear a bra? It’s not the best argument, but there are genuine sentiments expressed that appeal to somewhat feminist thinking, and it may be one of the more intelligent choices made in the film.
The biggest standout here is Alexander Skarsgard, who is absolute smarmy southern perfection; a charmer with ulterior motives and a mean streak that isn’t too action-oriented, and gives us the closest thing to complexity this film has to offer. An intricate and startling scene between Amy and Charlie is heightened by complex motives and feelings, offering what is very well the boldest and most brazen choice in Straw Dogs, as all things are not black and white and so achingly simple. Bosworth and Skarsgard play off of each other so well that it’s positively shameful when the camera chooses to linger on Skarsgard’s body during this jarring scene in a fashion that is nothing short of masturbatory.
Sadly, the finer, complex moments are few and far between. Lurie has created a film that is so superficial, with obvious and often puzzling choices. Several times the camera lingers on a bear trap that might as well be emblazoned with a flashing neon “CLIMACTIC WEAPON OF CHOICE.” David’s cowardice is never explored enough to earn his resulting and incredibly thin triumph, which is so muddled and confused that it never feels like an honest win for the guy. It doesn’t help that the natural goofiness of James Marsden and the tonal discrepancies never quite manage to create a legitimate resolution; sure, the action is tied up neatly, but the characters never evolve and thus never feel as if they’ve completed their narrative arcs – and that’s to suggest they ever truly set out to do so in the first place, which is ultimately giving credit where credit isn’t due… And so it is when a director sets out to remake another’s work.
Possibly more insulting than any of the missed opportunities is, again, the tonal discordance; notions of defense and revenge – and again, cowardice vs. bravery – come into play, but rather than acknowledge that violence exacted in the name of violence is an unconstitutionally bleak and meritless pursuit, he approaches it as a crowd-pleasing affair. Straw Dogs should employ dangerous concepts of baser human instincts, but instead it appears that Lurie is all too happy to cater directly to those urges, thusly courting an audience of ignorant, bloodthirsty brutes and completely fumbling (what I assume is, or at the very least could be) his own intentions. It’s as if Lurie is attempting to paint by numbers in the dark, knowing the marks he needs to hit, but only the faintest idea of where to actually fill them in.