The best that can be said about this remake of the 1971 Sam Peckinpah classic (seriously kids, go rent the original; it just came out on Blu Ray!) is that it’s watchable: and that’s mostly due to Alexander Skarsgard’s stellar abdominal muscles.
The screenplay by Rod Lurie, who also directs, sticks pretty closely to the idea of the original Straw Dogs, which was based on the short story “The Siege of Trencher’s Farm” by Gordon Williams. This drooling and redundant remake follows the story of young couple David and Amy Sumner (James Marsden, Kate Bosworth) who are returning to her home town to restore her ancestral house and get a little peace and quiet. The action in the film has been moved from Cornwall, England to Deliverance-ville…er…Blackwater, Mississippi.
Amy, once the redneck head cheerleader who dated the redneck star quarterback, is now a polished minor TV star who’s grown sick of the bright lights of LA. David is a screenwriter who’s writing a movie about Stalingrad and sees the small-town lifestyle as a way to hunker down and get some real work done.
What the Sumners don’t foresee is the sensation they’ll cause in a town where the biggest excitement going is the monthly “pray and play,” an event that features a fire and brimstone church service followed by a football game and tailgate party.
Amy’s old boyfriend Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard) seems particularly interested in her return, finagling his way into getting hired by David to repair their barn roof that was destroyed during Hurricane Katrina. He and his squad of leering, sweaty Southern stereotypes perch on top of the barn, mentally undressing Amy as she goes for her daily run and finding any opportunity to belittle David.
Passive-aggressive gestures and conversations brimming with subtext devolve into outright threats, followed by a physical attack that will still seem startling even if you’ve seen the original. It all culminates with a lengthy siege on the house, led by the town’s alcoholic former football coach (played by a volatile and frightening James Woods) who’s after a mentally challenged man (Dominic Purcell) David and Amy are protecting.
The clever dialogue and thoughtful observations of the original are tossed aside for a pickup truckload of exposition as well as a handful of contrivances and ham-fisted foreshadowing that may as well come with a blinking light at the bottom of the screen that reads: Pay Attention! This Will Be Important Later!
Case in point: David is working on a screenplay about an army in WWII that defeated a much larger army thanks to ingenuity and a fortitude they never knew they had. There are also enough shots of a decorative bear trap (really?!) to pound home the point that it will make an essential appearance later in the film (and does it!). In fact, the film should really be re-titled Straw Dogs for Dummies: Just in Case Subtlety Is Not Your Thing.
While the final act is still as undeniably cathartic as it was in the original film, it doesn’t change the fact that this remake may actually qualify as a Straw Dog itself. As David explains to Amy, a Straw Dog is an object that is created solely as a ceremonial stand-in for something far more important and then later tossed aside when it’s no longer of use.
David was talking about Charlie and the other past-their-prime Blackwater football players, but considering the original film was a scandal-causing commentary on the nature of violence (among other things) and this version is clearly nothing more than excuse for Sony to use up that extra few gallons of fake blood cluttering up their backlot, I’d say that in this case the definition definitely rings true.