Most bad movies are just dull, designed to appeal to the least-demanding audience members, confirming their most basic sense of what a movie ought to be like for a few hours—as easily consumed as any other media or food product we may encounter in our daily lives. Rod Lurie’s remake of Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, all told, lands squarely in a rightfully cordoned-off area of “bad movies,” but as remakes go, it’s downright weird, that one-in-a-thousand kind of remake (like Gus Van Sant’s Psycho) that’s consciously engineered to be more like the original than different. The fact that no mother’s son or daughter is fool enough to mistake the remake for the 1971 (or 1960) movie, or any movie from that era, for a variety of reasons, is what makes the experience feel so strange. You can work hard to duplicate the look and feel of a movie from yesteryear, but at the end of the day, even the most naïve moviegoers will catch on to what you’re doing.
Peckinpah’s 1971 film remained a subject of controversy in the decades following its release; like that same year’s A Clockwork Orange, it’s a film that has so inspired various experts and commentators to make hay out of crucial scenes that any discussion of its other qualities tends to get pushed to the side. Its legacy as a provocation, and hot potato of British censorship, notwithstanding, the first—and, to my mind, only—Straw Dogs is a film whose extremely precise aesthetic structure is used deliberately to create moral and emotional confusion. It’s not enough to say that such films aren’t being made anymore, because it’s hard to imagine the film being made at all, during any period. The siege scenario, perfected by Howard Hawks’s Rio Bravo and The Thing from Another World, is inverted and perverted, obliterating clear distinctions between hero and villain, victim and predator. Film scholar Stephen Prince, in his commentary for the Criterion Collection DVD, made a persuasive case for how best to look at Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, including the suggestion that Dustin Hoffman’s character makes the most sense as the closest thing the film has to a villain.
Unwisely, Lurie short-changes the original’s moral ambiguity, stripping away all of the nuance and complexity in favor of a more straightforward inventory of the story’s main points, dolled up with “it’s 2011” (wireless, handheld telephones!) earmarks and a patronizing, fearful, and hateful depiction of the U.S. South. It’s here, however, that Lurie’s remake becomes downright perplexing. It’s true that the remake is a load of slick shit, as if the main character (no longer an egghead mathematician but a Los Angeles television writer, looking to make it big with a feature-film script about the siege of Stalingrad; is subtext still subtext when it’s scrawled across a giant chalkboard?) had given the script a once-over himself. But Lurie actually goes to great lengths to try and ape Peckinpah’s fragmentary editing patterns and layered frames, as if he’s trying to re-Peckinpah all of the alterations he’s made to the original.
The schizoid quality that begins to dominate the film as a result raises it above the status of mere train wreck, resulting in something closer to The House of the Devil, Ti West’s far more creditable, mimeograph-style reboot of a certain subgenre of slow-burn, 1970s horror, than, say, Steven Soderbergh’s beyond-hip Ocean’s Eleven or Breck Eisner’s lively, intelligent, but decidedly non-Romero-esque The Crazies.
The main point of distraction is the all-too-2011 decision to turn the story into a battle of the high-cheekboned pinups; 75% of the main cast has bronzed, sculpted abs and bulging neck muscles. Despite Lurie’s part-time efforts to lend the film some sense of place, the impulse to hot-ify everything from Peckinpah’s considerably more earthbound original ultimately outpaces his meager good intentions. In fact, if there’s any subtext at all, it’s when the film delves into Top Gun territory, and James Marsden spends considerably more time gazing at Alexander Skarsgård’s perfect cleavage than Kate Bosworth’s.
It makes all the difference in the world that supernerd Dustin Hoffman should be completely alien not just to Cornwall, but to England; compared to James Marsden, who can never not look like an action star, even when he’s being tossed around like a rag doll, Hoffman’s status in the Cornwall community is that of a complete anomaly, not just a fish out of water but a fish on Mars. In Lurie’s update, we’re never allowed to forget, thanks to an endless stream of reminders in the dialogue, that Marsden’s Sumner is a carpetbagger, a highfalutin Left Coast, no-socks-wearin’, hipster sissy-bwah, a big-time Hollywood wraaahter, and so on. In fewer than eight minutes, in the second half of the “Travel Day/South” episode of Louie, comedian Louis C.K. incinerated this cliché, effectively—and preemptively—rendering such films as Lurie’s Straw Dogs as artifacts from the Museum of the Defeated Screenwriter.
The fissure between faithful, respectful monument and soulless, hot-shit modernization/transplant also paints Lurie, fatally, into a corner. The politics of bullying, the male gaze, and rape are sewn teasingly into the dialogue, hinting at the possibility that Lurie’s script will actually discuss these hot-button topics—a misdirect, unfortunately, all the more egregious for how Lurie compromises the most incendiary aspect of the original’s rape scene. Whereas the rape in the original film serves as a litmus test to determine a viewer’s mental and political competence (hint: If you think that, if the victim of a rape experiences pleasure, it somehow renders the victim complicit, and absolves the rapist, you’re in dire need of some fundamental reprogramming), Lurie opts to implicate the audience not even a little bit. Thus, one seemingly minor decision transforms one of the great, irresolvable puzzles of modern cinema, into a far baser, cruder revenge narrative, exactly the sort of thing the original film’s detractors would be right in prosecuting.