Friday, September 16, 2011

Exploiting Peckinpah: the Straw Dogs Remake

“Dueling Banjos” must be expensive music to license. It is about the only thing missing from the formerly indie Rod Lurie’s red state-phobic remake of Sam Peckinpah’s career-defining film, Straw Dogs. Transferred from the English countryside to the Deep South, the once edgy examination of violent human nature is now a standard issue killer hillbilly movie (trailer here), which opens today nationwide.

The prodigal television ingénue Amy Sumner tells her screenwriter husband David her hometown of Blackwater, Mississippi is properly pronounced “Backwater.” There you have the film’s flash of wit. It also tells viewers what to expect of the locals. Everyone watched her canceled show, including her former high school beau Charlie Venner, whom her husband hires to fix their hurricane damaged barn. In retrospect, this is a bad idea.

Venner, his brother Darryl, his other brother Darryl, and their wacky next door neighbor, the unmistakably psychotic Norm, do not exactly hustle on the job, taking plenty of breaks to leer at her and deride his manhood, such as it is. Things quickly escalate when one of the good old boys strings up the family cat in their closet. Yet, Sumner will not confront them directly, preferring to confuse them with his cryptic beating around the bush. Eventually though, things get way out of hand, forcing Sumner to defend home, hearth, and Jeremy Niles, a developmentally disabled grown man with an implied history of inappropriate behavior, whom the gruesome foursome and their former football coach, Tom Heddon, are out to lynch.

Strangely, Lurie’s adaptation hardly ever deviates from the basic structure of Peckinpah’s original, yet he clearly has no clue what made it so effective. For one thing, the 1971 film pulled a cultural reverse, unleashing a violent maelstrom against the picturesque backdrop of Cornwall, while casting a Yank as the pacifist victim. However, a city slicker terrorized by a pack of southern hicks is a real dog-bites-man story in Hollywood.

As a nebbish mathematician, the responses of Dustin Hoffman’s Sumner also made more sense in the context of Peckinpah’s film. It is not hard to imagine he might have been bullied before and is reverting to old survival strategies in his attempts to befriend his antagonists. In contrast, James Marsden’s snobby jag-driving outspokenly atheistic screenwriter never seemed to have a bad day in his life before he got to Blackwater. Frankly, Venner might be a knuckle-dragging neanderthal, but he has a point when he tells Sumner it was rude to walk out during the pastor’s sermon. Of course, in real life he should not be brutalized for such boorishness, but in a sleazy exploitation film (which is really what the new Straw is) it is a close call.

There is no question Lurie is demonizing the gun-and-religion clinging Red-Staters, but at least he refrains from playing the race card in his Straw. Though savage, Venner and his crew are really not portrayed as racists, per se. In fact, they more or less respect the town’s African American lawman, Iraq War hero John Burke. Of course, as an authority figure, they still have problems with him.

At least Lurie gets down to business during the climatic siege, delivering the old school payback with efficient directness, though again he more or less replicates the methods of execution employed in the original film. He also includes the notorious rape scene as well, but the reactions of Kate Bosworth’s Amy Sumner are never ambiguous (indeed, it is hard to blame him for “wimping out” in this respect).

Marsden and Bosworth make a pretty dull, unlikable couple. Alexander Skarsgård is not a particularly flamboyant villain either, but at least he adds an intriguing dimension, hinting at Venner’s possible sense of remorse. Naturally, it is up to James Woods to ham it up something fierce as Coach Heddon, a mean drunk if ever there was one.

It is hard to understand why this film was produced. If Lurie wanted to make a southern fried grindhouse movie, he should have done so without invoking comparison to such a controversial (and superior) film. Faithfully violent but often outright silly, Lurie’s Straw is just about what you think it is. Not recommended (except perhaps as an ironic trip to the drive-in for fly-over country), it opens today (9/16) in several New York theaters, including the Regal Battery Park.