DIR/WRI: Rod Lurie • PRO: Marc Frydman, Rod Lurie • ED: Sarah Boyd • DOP: Alik Sakharov • DES: Tony Fanning • CAST: James Marsden, Kate Bosworth, Alexander Skarsgård
Remakes will always be compared to the original – this is a fact. Regardless of the years past between the original and the remake, the original will always be the yard-stick. It seems, therefore, that to do a remake is to invite that comparison. Some filmmakers relish the idea of measuring themselves against history whereas others prefer to shun the very idea of there being anything between it and the original. Straw Dogs was originally released in 1971 and is considered a controversial classic. With this remake, they have changed certain elements but kept the core story as it is. James Marsden and Kate Bosworth arrive in Blackwater, Mississippi, eager to begin renovations on her father’s house and start their life together as newlyweds. Whereas in the original, Marsden’s character was a mathematician, here he is a screenwriter. Likewise, Kate Bosworth’s character has been changed to a somewhat vapid actress who’s returned to her hometown. Initially, the locals seems friendly and – for the most part – inviting. They enlist labourers, who as in the original, are ambivalent and dismissive of Marsden’s academic pursuits. As it transpires, one of the labourers – here played by Alexander Skasgard – was a former football star and lover of Kate Bosworth’s character.
The original film was controversial at the time for its graphic use of sex and challenging societal norms with regards to husbands and wives. Usually, when you remake a film, you’re doing it because either new technology has been created so as to allow the full vision of what the original intended or it’s a case of times have changed and the story serves as a cautionary tale. In the original, James Marsden’s character – played by Dustin Hoffman – talks about his role as man of the house and how he is the chief bread-winner and his wife’s role is that of a homemaker. Here, however, Rod Lurie has excised this part of the story completely. Gone is the subtle politics between the husband and wife. Rather than replacing it with something that is topical today, it’s been completely removed from the script. This isn’t to say that this topic in the original has gone away in today’s society – quite the opposite, in fact. Why did he choose to leave this out? Instead, he forces in a scene about religious iconography and how atheism is offensive to the locals, particularly Alexander Skarsgård. The plot of the film doesn’t deviate at all from the original. It’s not a shot-for-shot remake, in that sense. It is beautifully photographed and Alik Sakharov’s work and use of colour is fantastic. If you’ve seen an episode of The Sopranos or Game of Thrones, you’ve seen his work and what he can do. As well as this, Rod Lurie works well with what he has and keeps the pace brisk and to the point. You never get the feeling that the story is sagging or losing its rhythm. Where the film falls down is in the violent climax. Sam Peckinpah, the original director, was lambasted for glorifying violence in the original. At the time it was released, other classics such as The French Connection, Dirty Harry and Macbeth were showing the depth of violence that cinema could portray and – in a sense – glorifying it. Of course, in the intervening years, cinema has seen far darker portrayals of violence and the inexorable rise of ‘torture porn’. Therefore, in this version of Straw Dogs, the violence isn’t necessarily a shock – indeed, there are far worse out there.
The whole film reads and acts like the original – but leaner. Lean to the point that key elements are missing and the original’s intelligence is gone completely. James Marsden and Kate Bosworth put forward very decent performances and Alexander Skarsgård’s career has nowhere to go but up. As well, Rod Lurie has shown he can do a decent thriller. His camera-work, use of music and the screenplay work very well together and really do mark him out as a director who deserves more credit than he gets. If given a fresh script with a larger budget, he could very well turn out an excellent film. Straw Dogs isn’t excellent – it’s a decent attempt. It stands in the shadow of the original and is almost completely engulfed by it. If you’ve never seen it, this is worth a watch as it gets all the plot of the 1971 version but cuts out a lot what made it such a classic. But, if you have seen it, you’ll come away automatically comparing the two – and finding this one to come up short.
Rated 18 (see IFCO website for details)
Straw Dogs is released on 4th November 2011