For the most part Rod Lurie’s “Straw Dogs” is a shot by shot remake of Sam Peckinpah’s controversial 1971 film. There are differences. Instead of taking place in England it takes place in the American Deep South. The hero, Donald Sumner, is an L.A. screenwriter instead of a math teacher, so there are a few modern movie references thrown in, making the film somewhat contemporary. But the original plot points and sequences that made the original movie so controversial are still here in the remake.
A cat gets strangled and hung in a closet, there’s a rape scene, and a violent confrontation between David, his wife and the locals. A slightly different setup but the same journey, ultimately the same journey of David has to prove himself as a man.
While it isn’t perfect, Lurie’s version (he also wrote the screenplay) is still entertaining, and in some ways an improvement on the original film. Which is saying a lot.
David (James Marsden, who bears some resemblance to Dustin Hoffman from the original) and Amy Sumner (Kate Bosworth) return to her hometown of Black Water to prepare Amy’s dad’s house for sale after his death. While there, problems re-emerge with their marriage as well as with the locals, including Amy’s ex-boyfriend Charlie (a charming but unsettling Alex Skarsgard).
One of the biggest differences between the two movies is the depiction of violence. Sure there’s plenty of it in Lurie’s but it’s dialed down. The rape scene is not nearly as excruciatingly stretched out as it was in the original (same goes with the confrontation). In fact all the violent scenes seem to be glossed over, not as raw. Lurie’s film is less brutal then Peckinpah’s.
Though this isn’t a bad thing. Peckinpah wanted to show us the full extent of the violence and his movie lost some of the substance in the story as a result. Lurie doesn’t want to show a long and uncomfortable rape scene and that’s just fine. By not being so gratuitous with the violence, he has managed to craft a fierce but compelling film.
Another interesting comparison between the two movies is the depiction of the local folk. In the original film they weren’t as defined as being bad people. So when they did violent acts they seemed more rash and you didn’t really understand why they did such outrageous things. Whereas Lurie establishes the bad characters right from the start. They’re good ol’ rednecks that love their guns and beer. So when they go on to do things like kill the cat or rape Amy, their actions, while still being evil, seem right in character. It makes the final confrontation much more satisfying. Bringing out those revenge fantasy urges in you. You want to see the “straw dogs” (as David calls them) pay.
Something else that Lurie’s film improves on is David and Amy’s relationship. In the original they were polar opposites. He’s brainy and snarky, while she’s a floosy and very unlikable. The idea was that going through this ordeal would bring them closer together when in actuality it seemed to push them further apart. In the new movie David is still brainy and snarky and Amy is flirty but she’s not as unlikable and proves to be much stronger, especially during the confrontation. The origins of their relationship are still a little mysterious but by the end Lurie succeeds in bringing them closer together.
Even though this movie is such a close remake of the original it’s important to emphasize how it stands by itself. The bottom line with the two “Straw Dogs” is that Peckinpah wanted to push the envelope with his movie; Lurie doesn’t, and because of that this new film turns out to be a fairly decent thriller on its own.