Defanged, by Kyle Anderson
The film opens with a CGI deer. No matter how good the rest of the movie is, or tries to be, this film chose to open with a shot of a CGI deer getting shot by hunters. Not since the computer-generated groundhog came out of the Paramount Pictures logo at the beginning of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has the opening shot of a picture instilled such disbelief and dread. But, in a world where Hollywood would remake of Sam Peckinpah’s classic 1971 man-on-the-edge film, Straw Dogs, nothing should come as a shock. What’s interesting is that writer-director Rod Lurie’s update of the uncomfortable masterpiece isn’t what one would consider traditionally bad. In fact, it’s quite a faithful remake of Peckinpah’s film, itself an adaptation of Gordon Williams’ novel, “The Siege of Trencher’s Farm,” but that alone should be reason to be put off by it. Lurie clearly respects the original, so why remake it? If one is going to go to the trouble of making a film a second time, why make it so similar to the first? Similar in a number of ways, mind, but not the same.
Straw Dogs follows screenwriter David Sumner (James Marsden) and his gorgeous TV star wife, Amy (Kate Bosworth), as they head into the Deep South of Blackwoods, Mississippi, Amy’s home town. Her father has just died and the couple are moving into his own house for awhile to take care of things and so David can work on a script about Stalingrad. While there, David is introduced to the local flavor and colorful townsfolk including the drunken high school football coach (James Woods), the local mentally handicapped possible pedophile (Dominic Purcell) and former football star and Amy’s old flame, Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard). Charlie isn’t the kind of guy one wants making eyes at his wife, which is exactly what he does when David unknowingly hires Charlie and friends to re-roof the garage, a casualty of “the hurricane.” As the film progresses, David’s city upbringing and rich lifestyle is consistently at odds with the simple, and angry, people of Blackwoods and eventually a local skirmish brings the conflict to a head, right on David and Amy’s doorstep.
That’s the very non-spoilery description of the plot that has been super-simplified as to avoid revealing anything too pertinent. However, anyone who has seen the original film will know everything that happens in the remake. It does stay doggedly faithful to the film that came before it, earning the credit “Based on the film Straw Dogs written by David Zelag Goodman and Sam Peckinpah” as well as the customary “From the novel…” This does not mean it’s an exact copy; obviously there are quite substantial differences, some intentional, others not. The most evident change is the setting, going from rural England to rural Mississippi, and as such all of the resulting local customs and flavor also changes. The original had Dustin Hoffman’s David Sumner being the only American and so there’s an international culture clash. Here, the differences are more based on social status and class. David is a wealthy Hollywood writer and he comes to this poor, post-Katrina Southern town and tries to use credit cards and pay for things with $100 bills. He’s also far more educated, having gone to Harvard, which makes the simple, not stupid, just under-educated people of the town feel as though he’s looking down on them.
The other changes are more subtle but far more glaring, and these are the motivations and consequences of the characters and their actions. In the Peckinpah film, the relationship between David and Amy, in that film played by Susan George, is strong on the surface, but as soon as the trouble begins, their commitment to each other is rocked. In this new film, while David and Amy still have the same fights, there’s really never a sense that they might not be strong enough to overcome them. Amy’s doubts in her husband’s protective abilities are present in the new version, but go to the core of her in the original. There is also the pivotal scene, which will go unspoiled for those unaware, between Amy and Charlie where in this version, Amy is depicted as being averse to Charlie’s advances throughout, but in the original how she feels about them are much more ambiguous, if not arguably entirely welcomed.
The biggest problem from a character standpoint in this version is David himself. While James Marsden is a pretty good actor and does well carrying the film, he is always more or less in control. His opinions and actions almost always seem to be level-headed, if not entirely in the right. He’s in shape, we see him exercising, and even though he’s a bit wet and morally opposed to confrontation, he seems like he can take care of himself if he had to. Dustin Hoffman is the quintessential milquetoast. He’s effete and “impotent” in a broader use of the word. He also is very clearly wrong in almost every situation, leading to his wife almost totally writing him off by the end. Marsden also never reaches the kind of nervous-breakdown desperation that Hoffman had in the original. Again, he’s in control, and while he’s not accustomed or traditionally good at fighting back, he never seems like he’s at the end of his tether, something that made the original so memorable. Marsden’s David has no tether.
As far as the direction is concerned, well, to put it bluntly, Rod Lurie is no Sam Peckinpah. Peckinpah was a master with the camera and editing and made the film itself seems like it was oppressing David and driving him insane. Lurie’s film is far too glossy and flat. There aren’t any chances taken in the filmmaking and it just looks like a Hollywood film, albeit a low-budget one, unlike the gritty, grainy original. You know how every remake of a 70s or 80s horror film looks? That’s what this looks like. This stands as the film’s biggest shortcoming. What, indeed, is the point of remaking anything as controversial and incendiary as Straw Dogs if it’s just going to be a paint-by-numbers experience? The story itself is not why the film is hailed; it was how the story was handled by a filmmaker who knew how to push buttons. The new film is competently made, and even entertaining, but there’s nothing dangerous about it. It’s just another movie. No matter the story being told, it’s still a film that’s concerned about putting a CGI deer in it.