“Remake” has almost become a dirty word among movie-going fans these days. And why not? To say that over the last decade there have been a lot of them would be the definition of an understatement. While the more cynical crowd would venture to say that storytellers are running out of ideas, it seems more logical that the cause is studios being less willing, in these economic times, to take a risk on something that isn’t already an established property. Either way, nostalgia has been “in” for almost a decade now. Despite the displeasure it has stirred in some of us, there have been some remakes of quality. Dawn of the Dead, for example, was full of nail-biting suspense all the way through. I found Straw Dogs, the remake of Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 psychological thriller starring Dustin Hoffman, to be equally enjoyable.
The story follows a young couple (James Marsden and Kate Bosworth) who move back to the Deep South where Amy (Bosworth) is from. We meet the other characters as David (Marsden) and Amy stop in the local bar, there is immediate tension. Charlie (played menacingly by Alexander Skarsgard) is Amy’s ex and once he approaches their table we realize that he hasn’t quite gotten over her. Thinking he’s harmless, David makes the mistake of hiring Charlie and company to work on his and Amy’s roof. Tensions between characters, fueled by Charlie’s continued obsession with Amy and David’s unwelcome views, turn more extreme as the film builds to a violent conclusion.
Some remakes are either copies of the original, while others differ greatly. Straw Dogs makes some small changes, such as the setting and the occupations of the two main leads, but the story and all of its subplots remain the same. The religious undertones as a backdrop for the violence are there. The rape scene, which was what sparked controversy over the original, is no less unsettling.
Because of the many similarities with the original, one is faced with the question: was it necessary? Maybe not, but the film is so well-executed, it is hard to find fault in it. It builds and builds, while never falling into the rut of being just a slam-bang action movie. It opts, instead, for the dramatic grittiness that made the original so successful. Part of this is thanks to the way it was shot. Lensed in the eerie backwoods of Louisiana, there is a grainy quality to the film that brings out the realism.
Another aspect that contributes to Straw Dogs’ overall quality is the excellent choice of casting. Again, Skarsgard carried a sense of menace and power with him, owning every scene he was in. Marsden is equally convincing as he descends into violence. James Woods stands out in his over-the-top (James Woods? Over the top? No way!) portrayal of Coach who ends up leading Charlie’s gang in the climatic assault on David and Amy’s farm.
So, all in all, Straw Dogs is a deep, dark film that explores the nastier sides of the human spirit. It manages to be interesting throughout but it’s not for everyone. The violence may be jarring for some, and, of course, those who won’t see remakes because of religious reasons will probably find something in it to hate. That being said, fans of the original who want to see another take on the story (originally based on The Siege of Trencher’s Farm by Gordon Williams) and fans of layered films that don’t pull any punches will find a lot to appreciate. I know I did.
Straw Dogs opens wide in Philly-area theaters today.