Straw Dogs

2011-11-18 17:19
What it's about:

A remake of the 1970s cult-classic, Straw Dogs tells the story about a young screenwriter and his wife (played by James Marsden and Kate Bosworth) who relocate to the small southern town where she grew up. What was intended as a quiet getaway for him to work soon becomes something far more sinister as the couple are harassed with increasing intensity by the town's locals.

What we thought:

Before so much as broaching the subject of the film's worth – or lack thereof – based on its own merits, one first has to deal with that great white elephant in the room: Why on God's green earth would anyone want to remake Straw Dogs in the first place?

Remakes, in general, are tricky subjects because, more often than not, there is simply no artistic reason to create "modern versions" of beloved classics or English-language translations of "foreign-language" films. At the very least, though, most remakes at least make some sort of financial sense but no one in their right mind would ever think that a largely faithful remake of a notoriously difficult and quintessentially 1970s film would ever set the box office alight. And, indeed, based on its meagre takings in the US, it has proven to be every bit the flop as one might expect. 

Since the Hollywood money men clearly had no idea what they were getting into, we are left with dealing with the Straw Dogs remake as a purely artistic venture. The immediate response, therefore, should surely be to write it off as a befuddling waste of celluloid whose target audience – cinema fans who like to be deeply challenged by the film's they watch – would presumably adamantly remain loyal to the "purity" of the original film. Most critics and film fans have responded to the remake in exactly these terms but – and here's the kicker – they may, in fact, have prematurely jumped the gun.

The 2011 version of Straw Dogs is noticeably not a massively dumbed down, "Hollywoodized" take on the original but, in the hands of writer/director Rod Lurie, it remains a complex look at the nature of masculinity, the divide between "savages" and "the civilised" and – most troubling by far – whether a woman ever "asks to be raped". In truth, it actually tackles these themes with a brash fearlessness that is even more explicit than the original film.

A particularly effective sequence in the film contrasts the literal hammering of a hammer as the "savages" engage in physical labour against the hammering of the "civilised" man's typewriter, while at the same time the two opposing sides are accompanied by the sounds of Southern Rock and classical music, respectively.   

It is also a film that is, by and large, very well put together. It doesn't have the grotty, brown on grey colour pallete of the original film, which lent it a particularly harrowing atmosphere, but people forget that that particular colour pallete was more a trademark of 1970s cinema (a look that oddly dates many films from this era far more than most films released before or since) than anything that was truly unique to Straw Dogs. It also may not have the storming Dustin Hoffman performance at its centre but the supporting actors are mostly stronger this time around – with James Woods being particularly memorable.

The characterisation of the two protagonists also make them far more sympathetic and, in Kate Bosworth's character's case, far more the strong, take charge woman than Susan George was in the original. The setting too fits the themes of the film far better than the quaint, English village of the original as religious fundamentalist, redneck Southerners make for a far more threatening presence than their counterparts across the Atlantic.

Straw Dogs is in many ways a better made and less problematic film than the original. Here's the rub, though: in this case "better" might actually mean "worse". The original Straw Dogs was tough, unlikeable and morally troubling but the reason it worked – if, indeed, it worked at all – was because of its rough edges and ugly filmmaking.

This new version is decidedly not the abomination that so many have written it off as but Lurie's success at making his Straw Dogs a faithfully complex and harsh but, crucially, more palatable and better made piece of work is the thing that ultimately dooms it.     

This perplexing remake of a notoriously difficult cult classic proves that "Better" doesn't always equal better.

Chrono Man 2011/11/23 2:02 PM
  • Rating:
I saw the movie last night. It was absolutely brilliant. An absolute 5 star movie. (I saw the original in my heyday as well). What struck me was that my sympathy for the lead characters, the screenwriter and his wife, shifted more than once. Therein lies some of the literary worth of the story. The film plays on sexual tension between male and female and whether or not males can withstand their sexual instincts to take what seems to be on offer. Ironically, the retarded man in the film is able to control his sexual desires but in the process commits a murder, whereas men who should know better cave in and rape the screenwriter's wife.
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