A fancypants young couple is terrorized by a bunch of country-friend townies in Straw Dogs, an overheated horror/thriller.
Screenwriter David (James Marsden) and his actress wife Amy (Kate Bosworth) have decided that a prolonged stay in her hometown of Blackwater, Miss., is just what they need to give David the peace and quiet to finish up his script about the siege of Stalingrad. They decide to stay at and repair the home that Amy inherited from her father, a stone hunting lodge with a barn that needs a new roof. The home is quaint and surrounded by nature — in a word, perfect, particularly if you’re looking for a secluded location from which nobody can hear you scream (which is the flip side of the peace-and-quiet coin). Immediately upon returning to town David and Amy run in to her high school boyfriend Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard), who proceeds to make Amy feel uncomfortable and David feel emasculated. Naturally, David decides it would be super to hire Charlie and his three sweaty compatriots to do the work on the barn. Giving back to local friends, David says smugly.
Charlie and his buddies use this arrangement to passive-aggressively drive David and Amy nuts and scare the Dickens out of them. They show up for hammer and electric-tool work exceptionally early (complete with boom box). They cut off work early — sometimes for hunting, sometimes for whatever. They wander into the house and raid the fridge for beers. They give Amy stalker gaze pretty much non-stop but particularly when they come up on her during a run. And then Charlie graduates to more gruesome actions, including a situation that doesn’t end well for Amy’s cat.
Parallel to this we have the general menace of Blackwater — drunken former football coach Tom Heddon (James Woods), his daughter’s (Willa Holland) twisted flirtation with town dimwit Jeremy Niles (Dominic Purcell), and a general mood of malevolence that seems forever thisclose to erupting in violence.
And then it does.
So, yeah yeah, Sam Peckinpah — I give up trying to see the original of every remade movie before it hits theaters so I’m not going to feel bad about not having seen the 1971 Straw Dogs. Nor do I really care if that movie is better or worse than this one. This movie needs to stand on its own feet as entertainment.
Needs to. Doesn’t.
For a movie that is about as tawdry and unsubtle as a “show us your boobies” Mardi Gras reveler, Straw Dogs did leave me wondering about whether or not its entire roster of characters was supposed to be deeply unsympathetic or if that’s just how the bad performances shook out. Sure, we probably aren’t supposed to like Charlie and his “boys” — each of them a sadistic bully with no redeeming value. And I can’t imagine that any characters as uni-dimensional as the people that fill the rest of the town are supposed to be viewed favorably. What I can’t figure out is whether David and Amy are supposed to be so deeply hateable or that’s just how the Marsden and Bosworth performances turned out. Yes, they are tortured — psychologically and in Amy’s case physically — but they are also smug and cowardly (specifically, David) and deeply dense when it comes to the obvious danger they are in. This isn’t just a case of “don’t go in the basement!” frustration with a victim’s actions. These characters are naive to the point of mental impairment.
The thudding obviousness of everything, from characters’ intent to tone, doesn’t just make the main characters look like idiots. It makes the whole movie feel dumb and slow. As David launches into an explanation of the siege of Stalingrad, we’d know, even if the trailer hadn’t told us already, exactly how the story would play out. Is that part of the experience? Is there some nuanced and clever commentary I missed in the subtext-writ-large-and-in-neon approach this movie takes? If so, that’s too meta for me and I fold.
Yes, True Blood fans, Straw Dogs does offer up many shirtless shots (and at least one side-bum) of Skarsgard. But do yourself a favor and just Google “shirtless Eric Northman” and save yourself the time and money. D
Rated R for strong brutal violence including a sexual attack, menace, some sexual content and pervasive language. Directed by Rob Lurie, who also wrote this screenplay based on the screenplay by David Zelag Goodman and Sam Peckinpah, which itself was based on novel by Gordon Williams, Straw Dogs is an hour and 49 minutes long and distributed by Screen Gems.