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Judy Thorburn's Movie Reviews

Straw Dogs | James Woods, Alexander Skarsgard and Dominic Purcell | Review

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Straw Dogs

No matter how mild mannered, anyone is capable of committing an act or acts of violence when you or a loved one's survival is at stake. That was the message of Sam Peckinpah's 1971 “Straw Dogs” that was considered controversial and shocking at the time for its depiction of graphic violence and gore.

We have come a long way since then and there is little audiences haven't seen on screen. Movies keep getting bloodier and more gory to the point that there is little left to stun or shock us. The remake contains some explicit violence and like the original, the definition of manhood comes into play.

In Peckinpah's film, Dustin Hoffman starred as David Sumner, an American mathematician who moves with his British born blonde wife Amy, portrayed by Susan George, to an isolated village in England where she grew up. The updated remake written and directed by Rod Lurie (The Contender) stars James Marsden and Kate Bosworth in their place. This time around David (a miscast Marsden, who doesn't come across meek enough) is a Hollywood script writer, working on a story about World War 11's siege of Stalingrad by the Nazis. His wife Amy is a TV actress and the setting has been moved to Backwater Mississippi where the couple arrive in their vintage convertible Jaguar and take up residence in Amy's late father's farm house.

David just wants some peace and quiet and be able to work on his script as Amy takes time off from her TV career. What the couple want and what they get is a different matter. Shortly after their arrival, the Sumners visit a local bar, where Amy comes in contact with Charlie (a restrained, menacing performance by Alexander Skarsgard, TV's True Blood) her hunky, towering, ex-flame from high school and a few of his fellow redneck buddies that are played as pure stereotypes. They also get to witness a violent outburst by a drunken Tom Heddon (a crazed but effective, James Woods) the former high school football coach turned angry, troublemaker, that proves to be a foreshadow of things to come.

It becomes obvious that Charlie has his eye on Amy and has trouble dealing with the fact that she returned to town married and accompanied by her husband. Nevertheless, knowing that Charlie is a building contractor, David hires him and his crew of goonies to work on the roof of the adjacent nearby barn that has been damaged by a hurricane.

Immediately, Charlie and his boys start messing with David and Amy, first by hammering loud early in the a.m. as to wake up David, blasting loud music, stopping their work early to go deer hunting, and strolling into the kitchen at anytime to grab a beer out of the frig without asking. Even when their pet white cat is found strangled and hung in their wardrobe closet (a predictable, overused plot device I saw coming when the cat first appeared) Charlie can't get it though his thick head who must be responsible.

Amy has an idea, and is angry that her hubby isn't man enough to take a stand and confront Charlie and his posse. David on the other hand is angry at Amy for running around the property braless, saying she asked for the lecherous leering stares by the workers. Making matters worse, Amy purposely unbuttoned her blouse by an open window before closing the shutters, as Charlie and his men watched nearby. Talk about inviting trouble.

Rather than figuring out trouble is brewing and that and he and Amy should get out of town before it is too late, David tries to fit in and makes another dumb move by accepting an offer to go on hunting trip. It is a set up that keeps David away from home so Charlie can stay back and pay an unwanted visit to Amy, where he forces himself into the house and proceeds to rape her. Instead of calling the police or telling her husband about how she was horrifically violated, she decides to keep it a secret.

A subplot, straight out of “Of Mice and Men” involves a local mentally impaired hunk named Jeremy Nile (Dominic Purcell) who is warned by Tom, the explosive coach to stay away from Janice (Will Holland) his 15 year old, cheerleader daughter. When the teenage girl goes missing at the big football game after seen going off with Jeremy, unfortunate circumstances arise causing Jeremy to wind up with David and Amy. Tensions build and everything comes to a head with the coach, joined by Charlie and his posse engaging in a violent siege on the farmhouse where all hell breaks loose.

Pushed to the extreme when his life is threatened, David is forced to take every measure to defend himself. Boiling water, a nail gun, a shot gun blast to the back and a bear trap come in handy as David turns the tables on his harmful intruders.

The final, inevitable showdown sequence is well orchestrated, tense, suspenseful and yes, brutal and graphic. What I found more disturbing was to watch the stupid behavior of David and Amy and the insulting, objectionable depiction of both female characters who come off as flirtatious, c-kteasers with no clue to the ramifications of their actions and, thus, get what they deserve. There is no reason to why the pretty teenager would have any interest in a mentally disabled older man. No doubt this is a movie targeted towards male audiences and sends a despicable, misogynist message.

In one scene David, referring to Friday night football which is a major draw in the Deep South, he compares the football heroes to Straw Dogs, explaining that in ancient Chinese ceremonies straw dogs were offered to the gods, but were tossed aside when no longer needed.

Peckinpah's film was a groundbreaker, but Lurie's flawed version is second rate and can't compare with the original. Straw Dogs befits the title of this remake since it may only have temporary power at the box office before theatre audiences know to blow it off.

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