‘Straw Dogs’ spits up a queasy mess
There was some surprise about a moment during last week’s Republican debate in which the audience applauded the high rate of state executions in Texas. But the applause makes sense. They were clapping for a kind of justice. That’s what the audience is cheering for at the end of “Straw Dogs,’’ although the sense of partisanship swings in the opposite direction. The movie is like being waterboarded by liberals outside a Democratic National Committee event. It’s a crude, queasy, ugly remake of a crude, queasy, ugly, yet artistically superior 40-year-old Sam Peckinpah movie with Dustin Hoffman as a math professor who becomes a real man when he slaughters the men who rape Susan George, who plays his kinky British wife.
The new movie, set in Blackwater, Miss., puts James Marsden in the Hoffman role of David, and casts Kate Bosworth as the wife, Amy. These two have come south from Hollywood in a new Jaguar. He’s writing a movie about the Battle of Stalingrad. She grew up here, has become a TV actor, and returns home to fix her dead father’s house, not with their entertainment money but with FEMA dollars. Yes, James Marsden and Kate Bosworth are the faces of federal relief. David tells the strapping construction guy, Charlie, (Alexander Skarsgard) who’s about to repair the house, that he’s writing a screenplay. He wears $300 shirts. When someone asks him whether he likes football, he says never misses the Harvard-Yale game (which means he didn’t even understand the question). Amy does her jogging without shoes or a bra. When she complains that Charlie’s crew is making her uncomfortable, he suggests she wear more clothes, which only makes her remove her shirt for Charlie and his crew.
Rod Lurie wrote and directed this remake, and he’s failed to account for the degree to which an audience will spend two hours rooting for, say, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer to Lysol everybody to death from 1962 Jackson. He skipped the macho grandstanding of the Peckinpah movie and saw a chance to make a tale of two states - one red, one blue. The Mississippians open beer bottles with their belt buckles. They hunt. They don’t respond to police distress calls because they’re watching football. High-school football. They’re half-witted or, in the case of the cheerleader who seduces the half-wit, they’re half-dressed. James Woods, as the cheerleader’s alcoholic father, has an unholy time eating the scenery and regurgitating his role as Medgar Evers’s assassin in “The Ghosts of Mississippi.’’
The movie’s title comes from the Chinese philosopher Laozi: “Heaven and earth are ruthless, and treat the myriad creatures as straw dogs; the sage is ruthless, and treats the people as straw dogs.’’ The dogs now include us. The whole movie - the eventual rape, the harassment, the half-wit, and the girls - is rigged for the final siege of the couple’s fortress, in which pampered David gets, at last, to live out his own Stalingrad.
Lurie is such an obvious director that he can’t even allow Peckinpah’s fascist subtext to stand on its own. He’s such a spineless one that he makes us conclude that Hollywood is battling the Tea Party, so that the deaths don’t really stand for anything.
The only thing Lurie believes in is his certitude that justice is being served. And the big cheers when a bear trap meets its climactic target will only swell his ego. David slays the Confederate Goliaths. When one of the rednecks asks him if he ever made a “Saw’’ movie, he turns up his nose. An hour later, he’s starring in one.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this review misstated the age of the original Straw Dogs. The movie is 40 years old. It was released in 1971.