Straw Dogs Review: All Bark, No Bite

STRAW DOGS (18): On General Release Friday 4th November

That old adage about “letting sleeping dogs lie” has never been so apt. Director Rod Lurie’s new interpretation of Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 classic purports to be “suspenseful, gut-wrenching and intensely cathartic” . Sadly, it’s more like a dull, gutless trawl through some of the most tiresome clichés spewed out by horror/thrillers throughout the intervening 40 years.

Not only does the 2011 remake rely on tired movie conventions (we discover the lead character’s mobile doesn’t work in his deserted farmhouse in the first ten minutes of the film) but it also brings nothing to the 1970s plot. Remakes can be a success when they rework and reinterpret themes and ideas, weaving in new subtleties; perhaps by exploring exciting new production techniques. But Lurie can be accused of nothing of the sort.

Lurie’s remake transports the original from the remote British countryside to the American deep south. There is no apparent reason for this move other than to let the killer hillbilly stereotype take away a hunk of his work in scaring the audience silly. The rest of the plot is left virtually untouched despite being suitably dipped in Dixie.

Screenwriter David Sumner (James Marsden) has decided, along with his actress trophy wife Amy (Kate Bosworth), to come back to her old hometown and renovate the family’s impressive country pile. After running into Amy’s high school sweetheart, Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard) and his bulging biceps, bespectacled softy Sumner agrees to let Charlie and his crew begin work on the roof of their run-down home.

As with the original film, the local bar is also the spot where Sumner runs into drunkard and big ol’ bully, coach Tom Heddon (James Woods) and his beauty queen daughter, Janice (Willa Holland). A flare up in the bar also introduces us to village idiot Jeremy (Dominic Purcell) who is under the close watch of self-elected village vigilantes after an unfortunate paedophilic past.

When the leering, straw-munching, axe-wielding building crew arrive to begin work, Sumner and Charlie soon lock horns. A testosterone-fuelled course toward death and destruction is soon set and all we have to do is wait…and wait…and wait. One big difference between the new Straw Dogs and the original is the amount of time spent building up to the gruesome climax. Perhaps the problem is that we know what is coming in this 2011 remake. With the shock factor absent and not enough meaningful changes to the film to keep us feeling interested in what a 2011 version of the deeply violent original, what is left?

Well, there are some fairly solid performances from leading trio Bosworth, Marsden and Skarsgard. Despite his chiselled jaw and muscular frame, Marsden is believable as the Ugg-wearing Hollywood screenwriter (producers felt audiences wouldn’t buy him as Hoffman’s mathematician) and adopts a suitably jittery nervous disposition – until the red mist descend that is. Skarsgard, meanwhile, oozes alpha male from every well-toned pore, while his boyish good looks make for an intimidating well-mannered nutcase.

But for all the hard work of its cast, as the film builds to its grisly climax it loses pace and gasp-factor. Intruders are rebuffed from the house-cum-fortress in a manner similar to the booby-trapped burglars of Home Alone fame. Flitting between stabs at moral poignancy and dark comedy, there is generally no appropriate reaction but laughter as another drawling southerner is decapitated by a bear trap.

The gory finale may be slick but it is nowhere near starkly terrifying enough, not for all that build up. While the original quietly forces us to consider whether Sumner’s killing spree is heroic or horrific, Lurie’s remake appears to have made up its mind with Sumner emerging the blood-spattered warrior of morals.