Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971) was filmed during a ceasefire in a marriage that saw him marry and divorce the same woman three times. The Wild Bunch director had also just been let go by Warner Bros. for bringing in The Ballad of Cable Hogue way over budget.
He was supposed to film Deliverance next, but that was suddenly off the table. A lyric poet who had problems with authority and substance abuse, Peckinpah was in a bad way, wandering about his Mexican hacienda, shooting out mirrors.
One bender concluded with a tequila sunrise in rural England, where he showed up, mouth dry and head pounding, to do a movie with Dustin Hoffman. But even here, Peckinpah was shooting at himself. Hoffman’s character was a bullied, tormented academic – a mathematician who couldn’t count on his wife: Peckinpah’s stand-in.
In the original Straw Dogs, every scene between husband David (Hoffman) and wife Amy (Susan George) exhibits a sick, tugging Freudian undertow. And so we have the unhappy couple settling in for a quiet night at home:
David: “Want a drink?”
Amy: “I can’t find the cat.”
David: “Doesn’t answer my call.”
Amy: “Do I?”
David: “You better.”
The new Straw Dogs takes place in the rural American South, where a Hollywood screenwriter (James Marsden) and his actress wife (Kate Bosworth) have come to work and relax. (Amy grew up here.) The film has one sly, ominous touch Peckinpah would have liked. David is writing a script on the defence of Stalingrad, a battle that swallowed two million lives.
Otherwise, the new version is a vigilante action film bereft of subtlety or restraint. The town’s name is shorthand for backward and evil – Blackwater, Miss. And David couldn’t come off as more of a carpetbagger – wheeling into town in a Jaguar XKE, wearing a Harvard T-shirt and ordering light beer.
As in the original, Amy meets up with a mean ex, Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard), who immediately demonstrates why she left Blackwater. Soon, Charlie and pals are working on Amy’s old barn, soaking up David’s beer and playing three-guitar Southern boogie on a machine cranked to 11 – having themselves a time.
When Amy goes jogging, dressed in an ounce or so of cotton, the men turn polecat. Amy is upset. Sensing he’s getting in over his $400 haircut, David suggests she wear a bra.
Finally, David, Amy and Charlie’s polecats stage their own re-enactment of the Battle of Stalingrad, with David besieged by his wife and five men with rifles and, in the requisite Southern touch, torches.
The final battles are traced from Peckinpah’s original. Yes, there is even a coiled bear trap. But whereas in the first Straw Dogs the most interesting fight is between husband and wife (and by extension, David and himself), here, the domestic dispute is of almost no dramatic consequence.
Instead, we get a routine, if rather gruesome thriller with attractive leads ducking in and out of danger. And the film’s Southern Gothic trappings are strictly for tourists – James Woods as an old football coach, wearing a Bear Bryant houndstooth hat, shouting corn-pone gibberish; there is also a slow-talking sheriff, a vacant cheerleader bent on trouble, and a poor unfortunate wandering about town waiting to get done in by a hateful, liquored-up mob. Dixie chucks and chicks.
Writer-director Rod Lurie lives in California, of course. Someone should whack him upside the head with a Eudora Welty short-story collection. A pile of Drive-By Truckers CDs would also suffice.
Special to The Globe and Mail
- Written and directed by Rod Lurie
- Starring James Marsden, Kate Bosworth, Alexander Skarsgard and James Woods
- Classification: 14A