‘STRAW DOGS’ REVIEW: Don’t always give a dog a bone

Kate Bosworth and James Marsden in 'Straw Dogs' — Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment

The 1971 Sam Peckinpah film, Straw Dogs, starring a young Dustin Hoffman, wasn’t exactly screaming for a remake. But, alas, this is Hollywood, where movies are green-lit with seemingly no motive whatsoever.

The 2011 update, starring James Marsden and Kate Bosworth as a young couple fixing up the old homestead in the American South, is a piecemeal melange of violence, rape, intense action and no purpose in a foreseeable radius. It’s not a bad movie; it’s just not a terribly relevant film. The characters are largely stereotypical creations, and the action simply serves as a means for more violence.

Marsden and Bosworth play David and Amy Sumner, one of those perfect Hollywood-movie couples. You know the type who hold jobs that are unrealistic and seem to have all the time in the day to putz around looking in the mirror. David is a screenwriter, while Amy is the Southern belle who moved to Cali-for-knigh-ae to star in them big Hollyweird pictures. The Sumners are back in rural Mississippi to take care of Amy’s family house, which was damaged during a hurricane.

Setting the plot in motion, the couple hires Amy’s ex-boyfriend, Charlie (Alexander Skarsgård from True Blood), a southerner who smiles and offers nice pleasantries, but we know something deep is lurking beneath the surface.

It takes no time at all for Charlie and his crowd of rebel rousers to wreak havoc on the Sumner’s household. And they know how to wreak havoc. There are brutal scenes of violence that are difficult to watch.

James Woods turns up as the alcoholic former coach of the local football team, while Prison Break’s Dominic Purcell plays Jeremy Niles, a man who the townfolk say is “not all there in the head.”

It would be great to report that these characters all take part in a thrilling cat-and-mouse game with a deep, existential drama in the background. Wouldn’t it be nice to have violence and “southern discomfort” serve a purpose? In Straw Dogs, they don’t. The movie is pure adrenaline, but not in the good sense. It simply tells its tale in 110 minutes and is content with nothing more.

It makes it clear who is good and who is bad. Yes, there are some underlying currents about David’s character and the general inhumane nature of all adult men. Yes, there are moments that are nail-bitingly intense. But all of these potential fireworks fizzle out before earning their true spotlight in the sky.

Marsden and Bosworth are likable as the newcomers in town. Bosworth, in particular, has a tough part, what with all the sweaty men leering at her through the windows. The character is almost like a piece of chicken thrown into an animal’s cage. It’s unfortunate that writer-director Rod Lurie didn’t expand the role of Amy beyond being simply bait.

Marsden has several well-intentioned scenes, and I especially liked when he mustered enough courage to tell off the local posse. Skarsgård, who I’m sure is a talented actor, is simply rehashing his character on True Blood and layering the performance with southern stereotypes. In fact, everyone in the movie who speaks with a drawl is two-dimensional pictures of what Hollywood apparently believes are “real Americans.” Whenever a movie is set in the “deep South,” there’s always a ton of booze, a fair share of Christian fundamentalism, backwoods violence and sometimes even squealing pigs. Half this country deserves better on the silver screen.

If you’re looking for exploitative violence, you’ve got your movie. If you’re looking for subtlety, pass on these hounds.

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com
  • Straw Dogs

  • 2011

  • Written and directed by Rod Lurie; based on an earlier screenplay by David Zelag Goodman and Sam Peckinpah and a novel by Gordon Williams

  • Starring Kate Bosworth, James Marsden, Alexander Skarsgård, James Woods and Dominic Purcell

  • Running time: 110 minutes

  • Rated R for strong brutal violence including a sexual attack, menace, some sexual content and pervasive language

  • Rating: ★★½☆

  • Click here to purchase Straw Dogs on DVD.

  • Click here to purchase the original movie on DVD.

  • Click here to purchase The Siege of Trencher’s Farm by Gordon Williams.

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications. E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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