Thursday, March 23, 2017

Straw Dogs (2011)

2.5/4

Starring: James Marsden, Kate Bosworth, Alexander Skarsgard, James Woods, Rhys Coiro, Billy Lush, Drew Powell, Dominic Purcell, Willa Holland

Rated R for Strong Brutal Violence including a Sexual Attack, Menace, Some Sexual Content and Pervasive Language

"Straw Dogs," the remake of the 1971 classic directed by Sam Peckinpah and starring Dustin Hoffman (unseen by me), seeks to be two very different movies at the same time.  It wants to be an adrenaline pumping psychological thriller with lots of bloody carnage but at the same time it wants the audience to consider the consequences of such actions.  Considering how these things are diametrically opposed, it would have taken a truly visionary director to marry them.  If it can be done at all.  I give director Rod Lurie kudos for the attempt, but it just doesn't work.

David Sumner (Marsden) is a Hollywood screenwriter who has moved to small-town Mississippi, where his actress wife Amy (Bosworth) grew up, in order to write his screenplay about the Battle of Stalingrad.  The couple moves into the house where Amy grew up, and they've hired Charlie Hedden (Skarsgard), her old flame, to rebuild the barn that was severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina.  But Charlie still has the hots for Amy, which he makes quite clear.  But David isn't one to get jealous or angry, which causes Charlie to escalate his acts of terror.  How much can the perfectly PC David take before he's pushed over the edge?

Had the film worked, it would have been both challenging and terrifying.  We'd all like to think that we'd have the backbone to stand up to a bully, but do we really?  It takes more strength than most of us have to put our foot down to someone, especially if they're a lot bigger than you and are flanked by equally brutish flunkies.  A movie like this could challenge our thoughts on morality and our own personal strengths.  Unfortunately, poor decision-making on Lurie's part and odd scripting choices fail to milk the premise for the possibilities.

For one thing, David doesn't change that much.  In order for this character to work, we must see him struggling to be the "good guy" even when his values are challenged.  That doesn't happen; until the very end he's a doormat.  James Marsden doesn't have great range, but he'd be perfect for the role if the screenplay had allowed him the latitude to work with.  Kate Bosworth fares even worse; she's saddled with an inconsistent character who is either tough-as-nails or a wimpy yuppie.  Bosworth is a good actress, but no one could have rescued this character without some rewrites.  The only actor who survives the material is Alexander Skarsgard, who is splendidly creepy.  In many ways, guys like Charlie are the creepiest, because they know that they don't have to do much to intimidate you.  With some threatening body language and a few choice words they can make you shake from head to toe.  James Woods turns up as a foam at the mouth racist, but he would be more interesting if his character was better wedded into the story.

This screenplay needed more work.  There are too many subplots, character motivation is spotty and the film seems to have been edited with scotch tape.  A movie like this depends on escalating psychological tension.  While I would be lying if I said that this movie is devoid of suspense or adrenaline, a psychological thriller should have to resort to violence straight out of a "Saw" movie.  The increasingly tense gave of psychological warfare should have been enough.