September 16, 2011


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Written by: Mitch Salem
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STRAW DOGS:  Watch It At Home – Pointless In Every Way


Forget about the artistic comparisons, the insult to film history, and the lack of respect to a great filmmaker no longer with us.  There’s not even a commercial reason to remake Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 STRAW DOGS.  The title is virtually valueless as a brand name, as the film, for reasons of rights issues and content, has only sporadically been available on homevideo, and rarely, if ever, aired on television.  The only people who really know the film are the serious fans who’ve sought it out, and they’re exactly the ones least likely to appreciate digging up poor Peckinpah’s grave.  So… why?


The only justification for a remake would have been some drastically different concept, an insight that could shed new light on the original material, but such is not the case with Rod Lurie’s movie, which makes a few changes from Peckinpah’s film but largely follows it very closely.  In every meaningful way, Lurie’s film is inferior to Peckinpah’s.  This isn’t because Peckinpah’s film is flawless; on the contrary, it’s a mess of undigested ideas and styles, and much of it is muddled and over the top.  But it’s a great film nonetheless, a milestone in a great artist’s career even 40 years after it opened, in part because of Peckinpah’s ability to turn his messy, difficult ideas into art.


Both films concern a couple who return to the wife’s home after her father’s death (in Peckinpah’s film, the setting was Cornwall in England; here, it’s the deep South).  David Sumner is an intellectual (Dustin Hoffman as a mathematician for Peckinpah, James Marsden a screenwriter for Lurie), and his wife Amy is a hot young number given to wearing a minimum of clothes (Susan George in 1971, Kate Bosworth now–Bosworth’s also been given a profession as an actress) who fled for the big city as soon as high school was done.  The town in both versions is a hotbed of drunken bigotry and, needing a contractor to fix their barn roof, David ends up hiring Amy’s old boyfriend Charlie (Del Henney then, Alexander Skarsgard now).  Charlie and his crew are louts who cheat and belittle David, and eventually turn violent, attacking Amy.  Meanwhile, the town’s pathetic retarded man (David Warner/Dominic Purcell) is teased by a local girl with dire results, leading to his taking refuge with the Sumners and a dlimactic showdown with Charlie and his pals.

Peckinpah didn’t smooth out any of the edges of his politically incorrect, even offensive ideas in 1971, and the original Straw Dogs was hugely controversial because it suggested Amy’s own actions had partly led to her attack (and worse, that she partly enjoyed it), and then that it took brutal killings to finally make her husband a real man.  Neither of those concepts are present in Lurie’s version:  Amy indignantly objects when David suggests she’s flaunting her sexuality to the workmen, and David has lost his note of triumph at the movie’s climax.  With no ideas at all to replace Peckinpah’s, what remains is merely a half-decent action movie.

All of Lurie’s cast is, in one way or another, miscast.  The buff Marsden simply isn’t the intellectual and wimp that Dustin Hoffman embodied in 1971, despite Lurie’s attempts to show Marsden as clumsy from time to time, and without that basic brain vs. brawn conflict, the whole focus of the movie is lost.  It was also a mistake to change David’s profession, since a mathematician is far more clearly a man lost in his own intellect than someone writing a movie about Russian soldiers in World War II–also, David’s inability to explain his script to the townspeople in terms of it being a war movie with action sequences just makes him seem silly.  (Possibly this was Lurie’s misplaced salute to Peckinpah’s World War II movie Cross of Iron.)  Bosworth either doesn’t have or has been directed not to display the knack for ambiguously sexual hostility that Susan George had.  And although Alexander Skarsgad is a fine actor, and viewers of True Blood know he can certainly play menace, he’s all wrong as an uneducated redneck–Skarsgard comes off as so low-key and sophisticated that he could almost be playing David.  (There’s an unintended joke when Charlie makes fun of Amy’s no longer having a Southern accent, since as played by Skarsgard, he sounds himself like he might own a gallery in Soho.)


Beyond that, it’s not an insult to Lurie to say that his filmmaking skills simply don’t compare to Peckinpah’s, since whose do?  But Lurie’s the one who asked for the comparison, so it must be said that his Straw Dogs has none of the photographic, musical or certainly editing flair of Peckinpah’s film (when, in one sequence, Lurie tries his hand at some subliminal editing, the result has little impact).  If the original Straw Dogs didn’t exist, Lurie’s picture might look acceptable, but then, if the original didn’t exist, this one wouldn’t either.

For admirers of Sam Peckinpah, the pain has only begun; reports are that Tony Scott is planning a remake of Peckinpah’s true masterpiece and one of the greatest films ever made, The Wild Bunch.  Perhaps, if we’re lucky, the movie gods will place that one in development hell and it will never actually come to pass; for now, we have this thoroughly unnecessary, mediocre rehash.  However, the existence of the new Straw Dogs has had one positive effect;  it’s put the Peckinpah original back into homevideo circulation (although the new audience-unfriendly Netflix doesn’t stock it), and for that, and that alone, Rod Lurie deserves our thanks.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."