Sunday, September 25, 2011


Imitation, Mohandas Gandhi said, is the sincerest form of flattery. The ghost of Sam Peckinpah would be flattered by the new tricks that “Deterrence” writer & director Rod Lurie has taught the old “Straw Dogs” for contemporary audiences. Although it isn’t a carbon copy of the volatile 1971 melodrama, the new “Straw Dogs” (*** out of ****) replicates the original in many respects. Mind you, nobody could set aside Peckinpah’s gritty epic which still sparks controversy for its misogynistic sexual politics for feminists. Nevertheless, Lurie’s politically-correct remake polishes off the rough edges and makes everything objectionable in this frightening story palatable. In the process, he sacrifices some of the ambiguity that made Peckinpah’s messy masterpiece a more memorable movie. Naturally, the new “Straw Dogs” lacks the rabid ferocity of the Peckinpah picture. Nevertheless, the original and the remake both wound up with an R-rating for violence, sexuality, nudity, and profane language. Like the original, the remake features a vicious rape sequence, but Lurie depicts the assault with virtually no nudity. Specifically, the heroine’s private parts are not displayed. What may sicken some otherwise stout-hearted spectators more than the man versus man violence is the mysterious strangulation death of a white cat. Yes, the original had a similar scene where our protagonists found their pet cat dangling from their closet light cord. Otherwise, the new “Straw Dogs” boasts a gripping story, interesting characters, and some surprises that ought to keep audiences guessing throughout this unsavory saga. Along the way, Lurie has implemented some alterations. First, he shifted the setting to rural Mississippi and takes advantage of the tradition of southern violence. One of the few problems with the original was the lack of familiarity with the English setting. Hollywood has not made as many movies about sadistic English vigilantes as it has about xenophobic Mississippi racists. Second, the hero is a film scenarist rather than an astrophysicist. Third, the mentally handicapped supporting character is not as unsavory. Fourth, David and Amy have a stronger marriage. At the end of Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs,” the husband abandoned the wife because she had betrayed him during the home invasion.

Hollywood scenarist David Sumner (James Marsden of “X-Men”) and his gorgeous young wife Amy (Kate Bosworth of “Blue Crush”) return to her hometown of Blackwater, Mississippi. Sumner has to pen a screenplay about the landmark twentieth century battle of Stalingrad, one of the turning points of World War II, and he wants to write it in the bucolic backwoods of the south. David and Amy met during a television series that he wrote for her, but the show has been canceled. Unfortunately, the Harvard educated David isn’t prepared for the reception that he encounters. Essentially, David is a fish-out-of-water. Not only does he discover that his debit card is worthless, but he doesn’t share the same relish for fried pickles as a delicacy that Amy’s friends do. One of Amy’s friends, Charlie (Alexander Skarsgård of HBO’s “True Blood”), wants to resume their former relationship as lovers. She was a cheerleader, and Charlie was the star football quarterback under the guidance of old school coach Tom Heddon (James Woods of “Ghosts of Mississippi”) who made his players grovel. When he meets Charlie at the local watering hole, David makes the mistake of hiring Charlie and his redneck hillbilly pals to rebuild a garage on Amy’s property that Hurricane Katrina ravaged.

Charlie and his pals start work too early for David and things deteriorate from that point. One of Charlie’s crew, Bic (Drew Powell of “The Marine”), ambles into Amy’s house without an invitation and helps himself to a beer from the fridge. Amy thinks coming home is a vacation, but David is serious about his work. Amy aggravates matters when she jogs around the property without a bra. She reminds David that she dresses for him and he reminds her that he knows what she looks like without a bra. Meantime, Charlie interprets Amy’s behavior as solicitation, and he invites David—who knows little about firearms—to join them for a hunt. Charlie slips away and rapes Amy while David is occupied in the woods. Later, one of the town citizens, a mentally challenged man, Henry Niles (Dominic Purcell of “Prison Break”), accidentally kills Tom Heddon’s daughter. All chaos breaks loose. David shields Niles from a vengeful Heddon who demands that David relinquish him. Heddon persuades Charlie and his friends to help him storm the farmhouse and take Niles. Suffice to say; what ensues isn’t a picnic for anybody.

Lurie has done a splendid job of fleshing out the heroes and villains in a different locale. He lets the antagonism smolder, and then he orchestrates a savage finale where our hero takes no prisoners. One weapon that our hero wields was not available to the English yahoos who assaulted Dustin Hoffman. James Marsden wields an automatic nail gun with devastating results. Similarly, the English yahoos didn’t smash through the farmhouse with a pick-up truck. Comparatively, the Englishmen were armed with only one shotgun rather than an arsenal of high-powered hunting rifles. Marsden plays a different kind of nerd from the Hoffman hero. Lurie rewrote the Kate Bosworth damsel-in-distress role so that she possesses more maturity than Susan George’s petulant Lolita-like wife. Unlike the Hoffman-George marriage that strained credibility, everything about the Marsden-Bosworth union seems believable. As a couple, their characters seem far more compatible. We are told more about their back story than Peckinpah revealed about the Hoffman-George marriage. Meantime, Alexander Skarsgård and James Woods emerge as stronger villains than Peter Vaughn and Del Henney in the original. While the film relied on Gordon Williams’ novel “The Siege of Trencher’s Farm” for its source material, Lurie derived most of his inspiration from the David Zelag Goodman & Sam Peckinpah script. Lurie lifted several lines straight from the original, though he left out Hoffman’s memorable line: “I will not allow violence against this house!” For the record, although the action occurs in Mississippi, the filmmakers lensed the story in Shreveport, Louisiana. Nevertheless, as remakes rate, “Straw Dogs” qualifies as a breed apart.