Straw Dogs won’t be everyone’s cup of tea and more than a few critics are dismissing it as a wholly unnecessary remake of Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 film. The graphic violence in Peckinpah’s original shocked and disgusted many. The violence in Rod Lurie’s version doesn’t have the same effect, largely because of how much society’s relationship with violence has changed in the last forty years. It’s that very change that makes Lurie’s retelling relevant and should get audiences to take this version on its own merits rather than comparing it overmuch to the original.
Lurie sets the story in deep in the American South—Blackwater, Mississippi, to be precise. Here we find a small, close knit community that has its own code of conduct, however morally ambiguous it may be. Into this bastion of football, hunting and bible study arrive David (James Marsden) and Amy (Kate Bosworth) Sumner, a Hollywood screenwriter and his actress wife. The culture shock is particularly extreme for David, who doesn’t have the benefit of his wife’s Blackwater roots, and it’s obvious early on that he is out of his depth. That impression intensifies when the couple run into Amy’s ex boyfriend, Charlie (Alexander Skarsgård), who is David’s opposite in nearly every way.
The success of this film lies in the three dimensional nature of the characters. David is not “the good guy” and Charlie is not “the bad guy.” At times, David is a bit of a jackass and at times Charlie seems to be kind of sweet if rough around the edges. They are the products of two different worlds co-existing, albeit uneasily, inside the same country.
The truce such as it is, doesn’t last long and the story then becomes about what drives people—love, lust, jealousy, anger, fear, bitterness. Human beings are not rational creatures. We react to emotions and have a tendency to see our individual perceptions as absolute truth. What differentiates us, then, is which emotions and instincts we allow to dominate our actions.
Charlie becomes the villain of the piece not because he’s fundamentally evil but because he allows his jealousy and possessiveness to drive him to despicable actions. As polite as he is to David, in the beginning at least, it’s clear that he has little respect for him and doesn’t consider him to be a real man. That he believes Amy still has feelings for him is all Charlie needs to feel justified in forcing the issue and staking what he believes is an honest claim on what is “his.”
But his perception of the situation is not an accurate reflection of reality. Unfortunately for Amy, Charlie doesn’t realize or understand this until it is much, much too late. Unlike in Peckinpah’s version, Amy is explicit in her rejection of Charlie after he rapes her, refusing to look at him. His reaction is among the more chilling moments of the movie.
The tensions—including the subplot involving Jeremy Niles (Dominic Purcell) and the former football coach (James Woods)’s teenage daughter—come to a head in an extremely bloody final confrontation that finds novel uses for nail guns and bear traps.
David finds himself caught between his principles and survival and the conclusion of the film suggests that he’s damned whichever choice he makes. It’s a fitting end to a film that reflects the shades of gray that our world is made of.