Naturally, if you’ve seen Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 provocation of a film, you know that it is indeed some kind of overkill that’s to follow. In fact, you know pretty much everything about Rod Lurie’s modern update of Straw Dogs, including what’s going to happen to Amy when her high school sweetheart (Alexander Skarsgard) and his buddies catch her alone (and that she might secretly, you know, kind of be into it for a minute).
Say what you will about Peckinpah's original—I personally find it to be a trashy rape fantasy hiding a brutally fetishistic sickness behind the aesthetic of art. But it did provoke. It did, in some ways, titillate. And it did force you to ponder what you would do if you were Dustin Hoffman's nebbish and meek mathematician suddenly confronted by murderous, limey brutes intent on destroying everything you held dear, your moral code of pacifism first and foremost. Here, though, there is no real provocation, no deeper thoughts or meaning. Lurie has simply re-shot the same movie, amped up the violence with extra splatter and removed most of the ambiguity simmering beneath events that escalate from small-town hazing to all-out violence.
The idea of transplanting the story from the isolation of the English countryside to the impoverished sticks of Mississippi could have served to re-cast a basic story of a man pushed to his limits into a modern light, shedding light on the class issues inherent in the divide between the haves and the increasingly violent have-nots. Instead, it’s a wholly unnecessary redux that simplifies the complex issues of male masculinity in crisis and violent sexuality into a brutal revenge thriller with little to no subtext.
Lurie’s no slouch, as he proved with the political potboiler The Contender, and his Straw Dogs is indeed competently made, with some moments of genuine dread thrown into the mix, promising a much more visceral experience. But when Skarsgard and his boys lay siege to the house for the film’s climax, that all goes out the window in favor of gross-out killings. Had Lurie utilized his skilled cast—which also includes a stark-raving James Woods—and let them really let them dig into the roles, the Straw Dogs redux could have really popped. Instead, characters are rushed into awkward transformations as the film races to make up for all the simmering tension with blasts of ultra violence. Peckinpah’s film is anything but subtle. But compared to Lurie’s version, its psychological impact and creepiness is only reinforced and, even for naysayers like me, sadly missed. Some kind of overkill indeed.