Sam Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs” challenged viewers either to embrace Dustin Hoffman’s passive mathematician as a man of nonviolent principle or deride him as cowardly and hypocritical. Rod Lurie’s remake, which replaces Hoffman with James Marsden as a mild-mannered screenwriter bullied by brutish yokels, dispenses with the ambiguities and — ta-da! — misses the point.
Peckinpah, whose graphic depiction of murder and rape made the 1971 revenge fantasy both polarizing and provocative, would probably wonder why any “Dogs” remake would strip David Sumner (Marsden) of his ethical relativism.
The original forced us to ask uncomfortable questions about masculinity and violence — why we resort to it, what it proves, and how we respond to it.
Lurie’s update, which relocates the story from England to small-town Mississippi, uses violence merely to titillate. It is a competent thriller, but a shallow, frustratingly ordinary experience.
Once again, David and his arm-candy wife Amy (Kate Bosworth) retreat to her childhood home, where onetime sweetheart Charlie (Alexander Skarsgård, of “True Blood”) and his redneck pals take a special interest in humiliating her new beau and questioning his manhood.
David too readily takes the bait — he’s friendly, but his attempts at being neighborly seem condescending. The locals sense this; David is a fish out of water, and Charlie is ready to gut him at first sight.
From that initial meeting, their relationship — superficially polite, but with a subtext of pure contempt — deteriorates into naked aggression. Charlie pegs David for a wimp, unable or unwilling to defend his family. David surprises him by answering his call to arms with a viciousness that catches everyone off-guard, including David himself.
Fair enough, but what’s the point? “Dogs” follows the same playbook as the original, right down to the infamous rape, but loses critical details along the way.
When Amy questions David’s bravery, it’s less a boiling over of pent-up frustrations than a dutiful concession to Peckinpah’s story, which established the chinks in their marriage beforehand. It’s a scene Lurie hasn’t really earned, and in the context of this dumbed-down retelling, it makes no sense.
So what have we learned, then? The original David was appalled by the Vietnam War but proved willing to kill when provoked. Peckinpah left us with contradictions to consider, and a tricky moral dilemma for viewers to reconcile with their own ideas of right and wrong.
The remake is a cautionary tale of a different sort, and its message is clear: Never move to Mississippi, but if you do, bring a gun.
Straw Dogs ★★
Starring James Marsden, Kate Bosworth, Alexander Skarsgård, James Woods
Written by Rod Lurie, David Zelag Goodman, Sam Peckinpah
Directed by Rod Lurie
Running time 1 hour 50 minutes