Straw Dogs

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While researching an article about Sam Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs” recently, I was struck not just by how many commentaries have already been written, but by how many wildly different opinions and interpretations they contain. What one viewer saw as a tasteless endorsement of man’s violent nature was seen by another viewer as a condemnation of it. The nuances and implications of the movie’s infamous rape scene have been debated endlessly, as has the relationship between the two main characters and their complex motivations for behaving the way they do. Love it or hate it, the film merits discussion.

Let’s just say the remake won’t inspire the same range of viewpoints. Nearly everything that was ambiguous, nuanced, subtle, or subtextual in the original is the opposite of those things here. It hasn’t been dumbed down, exactly — just flattened, so that what was once a messy and uncomfortable assault on the viewer’s sensibilities is now a standard genre flick that will mean approximately the same thing to everyone who sees it. Which doesn’t make it bad, of course, except in comparison to its predecessor. On its own merits, it’s merely average.

Writer/director Rod Lurie (“The Contender”) has moved the setting from rural England to rural Mississippi, but the story is essentially the same, as are several chunks of dialogue. David Sumner (James Marsden) and his new wife, Amy (Kate Bosworth), have just moved to the backwater town Amy grew up in, where they’ll inhabit her late father’s rustic old house. James, a screenwriter and an intellectual, doesn’t know how to relate to the beer-drenched simpletons who populate this place. Amy, an actress who is not granted the luxury of a distinct personality, has mixed feelings about the town she couldn’t wait to get out of as a teenager.

The Sumners employ a handful of local guys to repair the house. One of them, Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard), an oily man with a charming smile, was Amy’s boyfriend in high school. The others are various combinations of lazy, boorish, and crass. They all leer at Amy and do everything they can to make a fool out of her wimpy, unmanly husband.

Also of interest: Tom Heddon (James Woods), a permanently soused local demigod (he used to be the coach of the high school football team); Jeremy Niles (Dominic Purcell), the village idiot, and Daniel, his protective brother (Walton Goggins); and John Burke (Laz Alonso), the town sheriff.

Even if you hadn’t seen the trailer and knew nothing about the original film, you’d be able to see that this is leading to some kind of showdown between David and the men, particularly Charlie. That is indeed where it’s leading, and when the time comes, Lurie delivers a suitably tense and bloody climax. A few sequences earlier on build suspense for the inevitable.

The trouble is that none of it means anything and, as a result, the movie feels overlong. Stripped of its character dynamics and queasy subtext, the story no longer merits a 110-minute running time. As a simple home-invasion thriller — which, let me be clear, is all this remake is — it’s a 90-minute movie, tops. In fact, may I be so bold as to recommend a home-invasion thriller that does everything Lurie’s “Straw Dogs” tries to do, only faster, better, and scarier? “Them,” a 77-minute French flick from 2007. You might check out the original “Straw Dogs,” too, while you’re at it.

C+ (1 hr., 50 min.; R, a lot of harsh profanity, some graphic violence including a sexual assault.)

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