DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: Straw Dogs (2011)

Wednesday 21 September 2011

Straw Dogs (2011)

Straw Dogs (2011) dir. Rod Lurie
Starring: James Marsden, Kate Bosworth, Alexander Skarsgard, James Woods


By Greg Klymkiw

God knows I love a good remake. When a great story can be repositioned to present the same tale in a completely different time and place and is rendered by a director with vision, it can generate really fine work. Genre pictures are especially ideal for remakes - horror, sci-fi, suspense, mysteries and on occasion even musicals. The first three film adaptations of Jack Finney's cold war sci-fi novel "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" rendered three excellent and thoroughly distinctive films in the '50s, '70s and '90s - directed respectively by such diverse talents as Don Siegel, Philip Kaufmann and Abel Ferrara. Howard Hawks' classic '50s production of The Thing eventually yielded John Carpenter's bone chilling 1982 remake. And frankly, if it weren't for remakes, John Huston's 1941 adaptation of The Maltese Falcon with Humphrey Bogart (the THIRD film version of Dashiell Hammett's novel) wouldn't exist, nor would George Cukor's exquisite Judy Garland-James Mason version of A Star is Born (also the the third screen telling of the classic tale that began with the film What Price Hollywood?)

Some movies aren't so perfect for remakes because they are so tied to a specific time and place. The filmmaking techniques aren't necessarily dated, but the inherent values infusing the era are so inextricably linked to the story that applying contemporary mores half-cocks them. A good example of this is the great J. Lee Thompson's Cape Fear with Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck where the clear divisions between good and evil are what contribute to the horror and suspense. When Martin Scorsese updated the film for his remake, he tried to be clever and blur those lines. That's why his remake doesn't work. Sure, it has his astounding direction and a few visceral moments that pack a punch, but ultimately, by creating moral ambiguities in the character of the lawyer, you actually end up muddying something that was, in its very simplicity, far more complex and, frankly, a lot more terrifying.

Some movies, however, are so perfect, so universal, so AHEAD of their time, that the necessity of a remake is simply uncalled for. In fact, the very notion of remaking them can only be pure commerce, pure greed and worst of all - pure and utter stupidity.

Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs is such a picture.

Based on the terrific pulp novel by Gordon Williams, the original 1971 shocker has, in my estimation, not dated one bit. It's as powerful and universal in its disturbing ambiguities as it ever was. (Unlike the original Cape Fear, for example, it is ambiguity that DRIVES Peckinpah's engine.)

The story of both the original and remake are simple enough, and on the surface, are identical. An intellectual and his sexpot wife move to a house in the country where the woman grew up. The husband is a dyed-in-the-wool city boy, but looks towards the solace of country living to complete his work. The wife's self-perceived inadequacies fall from her shoulders once she's back in her old stomping grounds - she's on familiar turf, hubby is not.

The local rednecks, one of whom had a passionate affair with wifey before she left for greener pastures in the big city, chide the city slicker hubby and drool over wifey. What wifey wants more than anything is her hubby to stand up and be a man - to rise (or in his mind, lower) to the level of the inbred ruffians. Eventually, the couple's pet kitty is strung up in the bedroom closet, wifey is raped and in a final showdown, the rednecks lay siege to the couple's farmhouse where hubby proves his manhood and defends his home with a brute force resulting in the savage deaths of the crazed marauders.

Peckinpah's film worked on two basic levels. Number one, it was a slowly stomach churning thriller that exploded into an orgy of bloody violence. Number two, it worked as an intense study of a marriage on the brink of extinction. Rod Lurie's remake works on neither level, though it pathetically attempts to deliver the goods with the former.

Lurie's film is shot and lit with all the artistry of a television drama. The genuinely suspenseful situation is never tense. The explosion of violence is on the level of a lower-drawer low-budget action picture. Worst of all, the acting is borderline incompetent - Marsden and Bosworth in the roles originally and so brilliantly played by Dustin Hoffman and Susan George prove to be such non-entities that they don't even appear to belong in this movie at all. And what can one say when even the king of supreme cinematic scumbaggery, James Woods, looks severely bored and in need of a paycheque as the drunken, psychotic redneck villain.

One of the remake's many boneheaded decisions is to set the film in America. Peckinpah's version works so well BECAUSE it is about an American and his British sex pot wife moving to a tiny village in England. Though Hoffman's character is, on the surface an educated, Liberal pacifist, he is American - he's left the New World behind and brought his trophy wife to the Old World - her home turf. It's the journey across the Atlantic that helps create the divide necessary for the film to work. Lurie, on the other hand, has no great cultural and geographical chasm to deal with. Granted, Los Angeles and rural Mississippi are regionally distinctive locales, but this is never explored in any intelligent, tangible way.

As a Canadian who has visited many corners of America, one of the most indelible impressions left emblazoned on my psyche was the genuinely alien feeling I had in Mississippi. No matter where I went I was greeted (as it were) with a malevolent sounding “Y’all nawt frum ‘round heah!” That, of course, was what I only vaguely understood when I could ascertain what belched from within the mush-mouthed chewing-tobacco-plugged maw of the speaker – lazily muttering words that appeared to be in the English language. The greeting (as it, uh, were) was never a question, but a statement of fact – one hurled with as much bile as possible. One of my visits occured soon after the free trade agreement between Canada and the USA had been signed, sealed and delivered. A common refrain from Mississippians was: "Whut's with yew'all Kun-ay-dee-yuns? Yew all wants to trade witch us fo' free?"

God bless Mississippi!!!

Racism, in addition to general ignorance and brain deficiency in Mississippi also ran shockingly and openly rampant. I could, for example, walk into a restaurant and the greeter would manage expel the aforementioned salutation with a somewhat more modest degree of literacy than gas station attendants and convenience store clerks and proceed, once confirming that I indeed was “not from around here” lead me into a section of the restaurant where I was surrounded by African-Americans. The other side of the restaurant was where Americans of the NON-African-American persuasion were sitting. A dark-skinned family seated in the next table made a point of offering words of welcome. One of them leaned over in my direction, smiled, and said in a FRIENDLY way, “I see, Sir, that you are not, in fact, from around here.” I confirmed this fact to him. He laughed and said, “That’s good. You’re in good company on this side of the restaurant.” I could only concur heartily.

The bottom line is this: Tied with the equally horrendous state of Alabama, Mississippi was one of the most dementedly scary places I'd ever been.

Not surprisingly, the woefully untalented Lurie captures none of this in any REAL way. His movie TELLS us that “White Trash” Mississippians are ignorant rednecks, but if it didn't, they'd all look like affluent city slickers playing dress-up.

One of the things that MIGHT have allowed a Straw Dogs remake to soar is the very idea that in one's own country one can feel like a foreigner. This is, in America, not at all difficult to swallow. Lurie, however, glances upon this potential with a vague, "Oh-must-I?" nod and moves on to "better" things. What those things are I can only guess at because whatever they might be they're invisible to me.

The other boneheaded decision is to turn hubby into a screenwriter instead of Dustin Hoffman's egg-headed mathematician in the Peckinpah film. Making the character a city slicker academic in the original made far more sense in terms of how he'd be viewed with disdain by the locals. In Lurie's version - especially in the context of contemporary society - I doubt a screenwriter for Hollywood movies would be viewed with so much contempt. I'd suspect the opposite. He'd be welcomed with pretty open arms. Everyone loves the movies - even inbred rednecks.

Where Lurie completely drops the ball here, though, is in making use of hubby's screenwriting prowess during the final showdown - or rather, NOT using it. Peckinpah made brilliant use of Dustin Hoffman being a mathematician - numbers, formulas, patterns: all the stuff that go into assisting his character in crossing over from benign academic into blood-lusting killer.

So why, oh why, oh why, does Lurie turn the character into a screenwriter, then have the knot-head express a prissy, "Oh, I don't do action or horror movies." Uh, why the fuck not? What a lost opportunity. It might have been very cool to have hubby utilize his "screenplay" to carry out his carnage. As it is, Lurie does have his screenwriting character working on a war picture set in Stalingrad.

Uh, Rod! Hello? Stalingrad? One of the bloodiest battles in history?

Uh, screenwriting 101 opportunity for cool shit here, Rod.

It's not surprising he doesn't exploit this. Lurie pretty much screws everything up. He drops the ball on all the brilliant religious allegory; he makes the evocative title literal and can't direct action to save his life. Where he really blows it is with the rape scene. In Peckinpah's original, it's shocking to see how Susan George expresses conflicting feelings of revulsion and lust when her ex-boyfriend rapes her.

This, Mr. Lurie, is called complex characterization. You, on the other hand have the somewhat moronic-looking Miss Bosworth ONLY reflecting revulsion when her ex forces himself upon her. I'd suggest, however, that the conflicting feelings Peckinpah displayed in the face of Susan George during the rape scene are precisely what plunged her into the sort of horror that would reside deep within for the rest of her life - especially when the culmination of succumbing to her ex-boyfriend results in being violated by his friend. Having all those feelings of anger at her husband, deep-seeded remembrances of the ex-boyfriend she once loved, having someone take charge in the lovemaking department are the things seared on her brain in Peckinpah's rendering and this is why audiences have never been able to forget the scene.

In comparison, Lurie's rape scene IS exploitative in the worst possible way. It’s lurid and nasty and in fact, simplifies everything so that her husband’s explosion at the end could be seen as inadvertent vengeance for the rape when, in fact, it is asserting his right as a man to defend his home, his family and his ideals. None of this comes through in Lurie’s version. Lurie has essentially transmogrified the tale into pornography – pure and simple. Anything resembling the deeper mechanics of story telling are ignored – as if they would sully the porn.

As well, Peckinpah's film is at its most bloodcurdling when it's quiet. Lurie replaces that with dull, meandering, misguided filler. This is no surprise. It’s exactly what happens when a hack is unleashed on remaking a classic that had no reason to be remade in the first place.

We've got enough hacks making movies and unlike Lurie and his particular ilk, at least many of those hacks have something resembling craft under their belts. Lurie has none. Under Lurie's belt lurks whatever's filling his lower intestines and waiting to be expunged into a toilet bowl.

I say: Loosen thine belt, Mr. Lurie.

Let it flow, brother.

Only next time, please try not taking a crap on someone like Sam Peckinpah.

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