No Stuffing in “Straw Dogs”

Photo Courtesy of Screen Gems

Mix altogether a heaping of Southern goons, a dash of sickly, hot oil aimed at an alcoholic’s face, a layering of an unpleasant rape with glamorous actors and a hint of brutal gore. The result is Rod Lurie’s cringe-worthy attempt at a thriller/suspense film.

Lurie’s “Straw Dogs” is a surprising deviation from his slew of mostly governmental and political focuses such as “The Contender,” “Nothing But the Truth” and “Commander in Chief.”

“Straw Dogs,” a remake of Sam Peckinpah’s scandalous 1971 work (which was also, not surprisingly, borrowed from Gordon Williams’ “The Siege of Trencher’s Farm”) bucolically opens in the Christian town of Blackwater, Mississippi. A couple, David (James Marsden) and Amy (Kate Bosworth), a Harvard alum, Hollywood writer and a sensual, TV actress respectively, move in temporarily. Soon, tensions arise when Charlie, the former beau of Amy and a role taken up by Alexander Skarsgård, relentlessly hits on her in front of David, who in turn enacts revenge with the trappings of rage, and repulsive barbarity ensues.

With three recognizable and somewhat noteworthy performers, one would hope the film would bring a little extra something to the table. Unfortunately, Lurie and three leads cannot elevate the work to a more heightened degree. Bosworth tries but exhibits herself as hysterical. She could have pushed the boundaries further, presenting more struggle and vulnerability. Her aggressive lines also come off as soft and incomplete.

While pasting on a classic Ken smile, Marsden hints at the animalistic side of his character and exudes intelligence yet displays little depth. Towards the culmination of the movie, he seemed as clueless, frantic, and pathetic as before, revealing that he still embodies a sore loser.

On the other hand, Skarsgård holds his own by smoothly transitioning between the two facades of the helpful local and the lust-filled hound. Surrounded by an intimidating aura that is matched with his towering figure, the “True Blood” actor represents a so-called real “man,” as labeled by his circle of hooligans.

Backed by a predictable storyline of a man defending his household against invaders, Lurie sticks to the original plot. Yet, the hicks of the South stand out as cliché and stereotypical. Mentions of Budweiser, football and Sunday services turn into dull references. Even the incorporation of the town’s idiot – acted by Dominic Purcell – seems unfair despite him being an important element to the scheme.

With all the slaughter, Lurie’s work definitely forces you to squirm and feel a bit queasy, completing the job of audience discomfort. Nevertheless, jam packing the blood bath in the last half hour manifests the timing and intended impact as a tad hurried and unrealistic.

The ending transpires in a strange mood and leaves the audience hanging in a not-so-good-way. Both Bosworth and Marsden’s facial expressions and continuing actions embody predictability right from the onset of the film.

Another blatant mistake stems from the film’s failure to address the question of humanity at its basic form. Just a trace of it is evident when David becomes pushed to the limit to dig out his inner, primal being for the protection of his wife. A good, suspenseful film should provide as much thrill as well as psychological depth. For David and Amy, much ambiguity and indecisiveness exist, which does not necessarily come across as a bad message.

One can be promised a skin show of breasts and abs. “Straw Dogs” wades in a swell of sweltering sex complete with dripping sweat. Sadly, it lacks classiness when being risqué. Therefore, everyone can be viewed as pieces of meat, regardless of gender. Admittedly, this discomfort may be part of the appeal.

However, the cinematography does make up for the losses in the film. Lurie attempts to retain that old world vibe with a brooding, grainy style. The highlights stick out briefly in the interesting camera angles and serene shots of wildlife.

Furthermore, the parallels between David’s fictional screenplay of the Battle of Stalingrad and the war zone between the couple and Charlie are cleverly incorporated and nicely spaced out throughout the span of the movie.

With Hollywood churning out remakes, Lurie does not offer much. Arguably, some may consider he is “reviving” the past. However, it is more likely that he is “ruining” Peckinpah’s legacy. By the lack of direction and exploration of the individual, Lurie falls short in his take of the siege. Simply molding the narrative for the current generation, the result becomes forgettable.

Rating: 2 out of 5