Sam Peckinpah‘s notorious 1971 thriller Straw Dogs saw Dustin Hoffman’s weedy intellectual find his inner savage when pushed to defend hearth and home against murderous yokels. James Marsden is the bespectacled wimp in writer-director Rod Lurie’s brutally efficient Hollywood remake, which relocates the action from rural Cornwall to the American Deep South but otherwise sticks closely to the original story (itself based on the novel The Siege of Trencher’s Farm by Gordon Williams).
Instead of a mathematician, the protagonist is now a vintage-Jag-driving Hollywood screenwriter, David Sumner, who moves with his actress wife Amy (Kate Bosworth in the role originally played by Susan George) to her hometown of Blackwater, Mississippi, but quickly gets on the wrong side of a bunch of local good ol’ boys, including Amy’s ex-boyfriend, former high-school football star Charlie (True Blood hunk Alexander Skarsgård).
As Charlie’s crew fixes up the Sumners’ barn roof, Charlie buckles down to his screenplay about the Battle of Stalingrad and Amy goes jogging in bare feet and tight shorts, the tension between them simmers away, until it finally boils over in an explosion of violence.
Lurie’s new version smoothes down some of the original’s more awkward edges, but enough darkness remains to make some sequences troubling to watch. Overall, though, Marsden’s David isn’t as ambivalent a figure as Hoffman’s (indeed, Peckinpah saw David as the villain of the piece). When his bookworm finally turns, the fact that he’s a screenwriter makes it all too clear that the film’s conclusion is as much a wish-fulfilment fantasy of the nerd kicking the jocks’ butts as it is an exploration of masculinity and violence.
Where the film scores over the original, however, is in the way the bristling hostility between the fancy-pants outsider and the local rednecks taps into the fractious culture wars currently being waged between America’s West and East coast liberals and its heartland conservatives. He wears designer sneakers without the laces and drinks Bud Light; they’re huntin’, boozin’, prayin’ types to a man. No wonder they come to blows.
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The new Straw Dogs won’t go down as a classic, but Lurie stages the climactic action with grim skill and the performances are excellent, including one in the crucial supporting role of the town’s drunken, vicious former football coach from James Woods, who has never been scarier on screen.
On general release from Tuesday 1st November.
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