Writer-director Rod Lurie made politics thrilling in The Contender. For his latest project to write and direct, Lurie chose to revisit a Sam Peckinpah classic -- Straw Dogs -- with James Marsden stepping into the shoes of Dustin Hoffman from the 1971 original.
Lurie’s Straw Dogs mirrors the original’s premise where a well-to-do couple moves to a rural town in the Deep South. Where Hoffman was a New York intellectual in Peckinpah’s film, Marsden is a Hollywood screenwriter while his wife -- as embodied by Kate Bosworth -- is a local who moved to Tinseltown and became a big TV star. They have arrived in a Mississippi that is clearly still reeling from Katrina.
The community still hangs onto a pecking order that emanates from what happens each Friday night on the high school football field. To say that Marsden’s David Sumner and Bosworth's Amy Sumner are met instantly with Southern hospitality misses the undercurrent completely onscreen. The two arrive in town in their classic convertible Jaguar. In the film's first moments, we learn that this is where Amy grew up and she is only returning to get her father’s house in order as he has just passed away.
Although Alexander Skarsgard’s Charlie Venner is soft spoken, accommodating and established as an ex-boyfriend of Amy, his character is welcoming -- yet slightly passive aggressive.
Skarsgard gives simmering glares that give the audience credence to believe he is not as good as his charming drawl and demeanor. The yin to Skarsgard’s yang is Marsden. He is equally as awkward as he is assertive. Not necessarily a successful combination when traversing through rural Mississippi.
Lurie is bold for even attempting to remake a Sam Peckinpah film. The controversy in 1971 that followed the director’s work centered on his film’s violence, specifically towards women. Lurie alters the scene a bit -- just a bit.
When redoing a classic film, especially one that stoked fires of debate, it is hardly ever a triumphant endeavor. That is like capturing lightning in a bottle twice. But Lurie is not trying to achieve that milestone with his Straw Dogs. His is a Straw Dogs of 2011 and as such it is deeply visual in its power. There is plenty wrong with the film, not the least of which is, when is someone from the South going to stand up and proclaim these hillbilly horror movies do not reflect the fine people of that area? Also, the surliness of the villains is seen a mile away. With the landscape crafted by Straw Dogs, the enemy should be more subtle in his or her approach.
The climactic conclusion to Straw Dogs sears with its images and suspense, yet fails to argue why a certain character has made a life-defining decision that seems out of left field.
Credit to Marsden and Skarsgard for their performances, both actors deserve their time in the spotlight. That is what Straw Dogs has going for it most, two actors in a duel to the death that alone is worth the price of admission.
Did the Peckinpah classic need to be remade? As his film showcased Hoffman’s gifts, so too does Lurie’s for Marsden and Skarsgard. For that alone, like a good stage play produced dozens of times, the audience receives a gift that is actors at their best, bringing a compelling story to life.