Rod Lurie‘s Straw Dogs — a movie that Screen Gems likes so much that it won’t release it until September 2011 — has gotten a boost from an Ain’t It Cool contributor called “Le Stephanois,” who caught Lurie’s melodrama at a recent Syracuse University screening. I’m impressed by this because (a) Mr. Rififi writes well and (b) claims to prefer Lurie’s remake to Sam Peckinpah‘s 1971 original.
Straw Dogs local bad guys (l. to r.) Billy Lush, Drew Powell, Rhys Coiro and Alexander Skarsgard
“It’s hard for me to recall a remake that has drawn as much ire as [Lurie’s] Straw Dogs, which seemingly everyone (at least everyone on the IMDb message boards) has lambasted and written off entirely,” he begins. “They refuse to believe that it could be good in its own right, that Lurie could have actually made a decent film. After seeing it, I can confidently say that anyone who might have harbored some prejudice towards the film should, quite simply, be ashamed.
“Neither I nor Rod Lurie need tell you that he is not trying to best Peckinpah, though it appears the naysayers demand some sort of explanation as to why it’s being remade.
That’s easy. Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs is arguably the best example of the late director’s misogynist ideology (this coming from a major fan of his work). Lurie, whose works are often defined by strong female protagonists, set out to reverse the original’s misogynist implications.
“David and Amy Sumner (James Marsden, Kate Bosworth) are certainly recognizable as reincarnations of Peckinpah’s David and Amy, though their ideals are altogether different. Lurie puts different human beings in situations close to what Peckinpah devised, and he does so brilliantly.
“The plot of Lurie’s Straw Dogs — David and Amy Sumner seek solace in Amy’s hometown so that David can write in peace, only to be brutally antagonized by the locals — hews close to the original, save for some slight alterations. David is a screenwriter and not a mathematician, and the setting is the fictional town of Blackwater, Mississippi, and not rural England. The townies’ new identities then correlate.
“One of the most admirable qualities of Lurie’s film is its slow-burning tension. This is not an obnoxiously chaotic exercise in extreme violence, but a classically photographed, deliberately paced and thought-provoking thriller — a rarity in today’s mainstream cinema.
“Just because it is not relentlessly violent does not mean it is in any way Straw Dogs Lite. Indeed, it is just as brutal and arguably as discomforting as the original, a major triumph considering Lurie’s ideological framework is nowhere near as controversial as Peckinpah’s misogynist mindset.
Straw Dogs costars Kate Bosworth, James Marsden.
“The siege at the end of the film is extraordinarily riveting, the ending itself a revelation of sorts. And none of it is cheap or self-indulgent; the violence is beautifully choreographed, achieving a rhythmic intensity that is well-nigh overwhelming. It is during the siege that Marsden makes a quantum leap as a performer, projecting an eerie confidence that lends an extra degree of weight to the film’s haunting conclusion.
“The utilization of the film’s setting is similarly outstanding, as the bloodthirsty nature of a familiar southern football town mirrors the air of violence that persists throughout the picture. The meaning of the title is clearer (it’s almost as if the title didn’t necessarily suit Peckinpah’s film, considering how well Lurie articulates its meaning), and the town’s having an identity imbues the film with a unique atmospheric tension.
“Lurie masterfully cultivates that tension so as to constantly remind the audience that they are in the presence of men who are predisposed to committing acts of violence with a primal mentality, having been conditioned to beat the hell out of anyone that crosses them, be it on the field or in a more domestic arena.
“The acting is uniformly terrific, and Alexander Skarsgard might just be the best thing about the movie. In a subtle tour de force, Skarsgard is utterly mesmeric; you cannot take your eyes off him for one moment, and you even root for him and relate to him in the oddest scenarios. As a former high school standout whose knee — and scholarship — lasted just three semesters at the University of Tennessee, Skarsgard is much more relatable and dynamic than the Charlie (Del Henney) in Peckinpah’s film.
“There is much to be said for Marsden and Bosworth too, both of whom give the finest performance of their careers thus far. Marsden tackles the Dustin Hoffman role with uncommon poise, unintimidated by the stature of the man whose part he inherited. Bosworth gives a mature, nuanced and at times disquieting turn, revealing a side of herself that should lead to plenty more roles in high-pedigree dramas and thrillers.
“Lurie’s film is not perfect, though it should obliterate the low expectations placed upon it by a small army of Peckinpah fans. They’re certainly entitled to their opinion, but they would be wise to reserve their judgment until the picture is released next year.”
In a recent HE piece called called “Little Doggies” I expressed frustration with Screen Gems’ decision to delay the release of Lurie’s film.
“The initial plan was to open it in spring 2011, but last March it was bumped to September 2011,” I wrote, “which seemed to me like a candy-ass move. Distributors always delay when they’re scared. They tend to put off releasing so-called intimidating films on their slate the same way financially-troubled folk will sometimes put off paying the mortgage.
“Straw Dogs is a smart but violent film with a rape scene, sure, but why bite into a sandwich if you don’t intend to chew and swallow?
“The general rule of thumb is that if your film isn’t released within a year or so after the end of principal photography, you’ve got some kind of worries going on. Inviting press down to the Straw Dogs shoot last fall and then announcing it won’t open until…oh, who knows but maybe Spring 2011 or September 2011 is like purchasing a Variety trade ad saying, ‘Okay, we’re a little scared — we admit it. We picked up the sandwich, we bit into it and…uhm, we’re not quite sure how to play it.’
I wrote that I’d been told “there’s nothing wrong with the film.” HitFix’s Drew McWeeny seized on this and asked if I’d written it because Lurie is a friend. “Because any other time people delay films, it’s the movie’s fault,” he said. “But in this case, you’re predisposed to believe the filmmaker, so in this case, it’s those gutless distributors.
“For what it’s worth, I have spoken to several people who have seen the film, and there wasn’t much good they had to say about it. They ranged from fans of the original to people who didn’t realize it was a remake, and not one of them seemed enthused or engaged by it. And, no, it wasn’t because they were ‘scared’ of it, either.”
I don’t know who Le Stephanois is, and I suppose I have to consider that he may be a Lurie ally of some kind, but if he’s not and just some guy who saw the film at Syracuse, then what McWeeny has been told about the film is at the very least questionable.