At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Straw Dogs “2011”

MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Action-Thriller/ Stars:  James Marsden, Kate Bosworth, Alexander Skarsgård, Dominic Purcell, Rhys Coiro, Willa Holland, James Woods, Billy Lush, Laz Alonso, Walton Goggins, Anson Mount, Drew Powell/ Runtime: 110 minutes

Oh goody movie goers! Here once more for your viewing pleasure is yet another film, very much in the vein of the also released in 2011 Fright Night, that manages to function as both a reimagining of something else (an iconic film from 1971 helmed by legendary director Sam Peckinpah and starring Dustin Hoffman) and a film that also will remind you of another film other than its original source material (in this category I humbly submit the delightful little film known as I Spit on Your Grave (as for whether I choose the original or its remake I leave that completely and utterly in your hands dear readers). Be that as it may be however, I feel it is safe to say that film helmer Rod Lurie’s 2011 take on Straw Dogs is one which is that unique breed of film which will divide the audience that chooses to watch it right down the middle and rightfully so. Yes it may, for all intents and purposes, give us the same narrative as the original film, but it spices things up just enough to update the story in the middle of an unnerving Southern atmosphere that film helmers seem to really enjoy utilizing for a backdrop when their movie’s villains are the kind of people who shoot, drink like there’s no tomorrow, take advantage of women, cuss like sailors, fight like bareknuckle boxers, or just engage in any actions that may either been seen as violent or lead to said violence to occur. Unfair generalizations about people aside however, this take on Straw Dogs is also quite potent and also different from the original film in several other ways. Yet it may be slicker, a little bit more jarring, and a little bit different on the thematic front, but not exactly what you might say “better”, this film is still very well-done in certain respects and even though the vast majority of movie goers might not put it on the ground of excellence that Peckinpah’s movie resides on, this is at least a remake which still manages to hold its ground and deliver on just what it is supposed to with an assertiveness that is deservedly commendable.

The plot is as follows: The story of Straw Dogs revolves around a man by the name of David Sumner. A man who, among other intricate details about him, is a noted member of the Hollywood crowd who, when our tale opens proper, is seen leaving the California fun in the sun with his new wife Amy in order to head back to her teeny tiny hometown of Blackwater all the way in Mississippi to reside and to work. For David it’s a chance to see a slice of life he’s never experienced, but for Amy it’s a trip back in time since even though she is some kind of sensation following her first appearance on one of her husband’s shows that he’s a writer for, everyone in town still view her as a gorgeous blonde who made their small town a little bit steamier than even the nearby bayous could contribute if you get my drift. That being said, we soon learn that although our intrepid couple are planning to reside in the old house that was at one time owned by Amy’s dad, a recent hurricane has really done quite the number on the barn in the nearby vicinity. Thus David makes the decision to hire a crew to come and help him fix it, but it isn’t long before trouble arises when we learn the crew he has hired to do the job is led by a man named Charlie. A man who, among other noteworthy details, is a former boyfriend of Amy, but even worse, still has feelings for her. It should also come as no surprise to learn that Charlie and his crew’s methods immediately begin rubbing David the wrong way since not only does their music choice and early start times leave our poor beleaguered hero unable to work in calm tranquility, but they also always end their day at noon just so they can go hunting or drinking at the local bar in town though in all fairness they are doing at least a good job. Yet soon thereafter, things really come to a head when Charlie’s group finally goes that proverbial one step too far into our dynamic duo’s lives and further conflict is fueled courtesy of David not wanting any part of how they or the town and their Deep Southern Conservative methods do things. Thus can Amy and David’s relationship survive not only the strain of small town machinations, alcohol-driven temperaments, and David’s unwilling desire not to physically stand up to Charlie and his pack of cronies or is this headed down a path where the only resolution is one that is very dark, and very violent? That, dear reader I leave for you to discover for yourself….

Now this take on Straw Dogs is one which manages to construct and ground its narrative in the very realistic clash between beer chuggin’, deer-shootin’, Southern good ol’ boys and a fashionable, well-to-do West Coast type who is not one to enjoy holding a gun and is more at ease holding an IPA than a Budweiser.  Yet, in addition to that, there is also a conflict to be found in the form of the West Coast guy’s marriage to a girl who, for all purposes, is a Southern Belle-type who is not 100% like her spouse or the small town girl she used to be and who finds herself both wanting to head home whilst also fighting the urge to become a part of the lives and traditions of her small town she grew up in once more. Indeed why on Earth she would go home when she most assuredly knew her hometown would not be the kind of place that would be ok with a denizen coming back with a man like David is a question that this film never frustratingly answers, but at least it does set things up quite well for conflict of the potent kind and the type that is physical and psychological in nature. Also, yes the small town vs big city debacle is a trope that has been done wayyy too much and in other, better films like Deliverance and even Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Yet, regardless of the fact that it has been featured in both iconic and low-budget slices of cinematic pie alike, it still manages to operate fairly well as the foundation for this film’s main throwdown of sorts. Also the stereotypes this film is saddled with are sure to rub some the wrong way especially with how the villains are “God-loving” folk and the protagonist…..well we’re never told for sure just what David believes in, but even when you look past that element which in all fairness should not have been part of the final product on display, this is still nevertheless a potent, riveting, intriguing, and even anxiety-ridden movie dealing with envy and misunderstanding and how bad things are sure to follow when these two concepts decide to team up in a particular situation.

Now from a style perspective, I feel you should know that this take on Straw Dogs is actually good. I mean this is a film which has the polish that you would think a mainstream studio film would possess and every ingredient it has in its arsenal is quite strong. For starters, this film is quite lovely in how it showcases this small lil town in Mississippi and this also results in some truly lovely work in the photography department which get even more of a showcase if the film wasn’t able to effectively convey a delightful mix of ominous tension and a uneasy mood which is in the air in nearly every moment of the film. Yes once all of our crucial cast of characters are set up, and the narrative begins to properly unfold, the movie does manage to make it clear that, in spite of the friendly smiles and handshakes going on, that things may look pristine on the outside, but on the inside a storm is brewing which has the potential to do serious harm of some sort to everyone involved. Yet, despite the fact that you can pretty much predict with ease just what is going to occur to the people in this film, the movie still operates with a truly vast supply of both energy and unyielding mood that soon blossoms into one of the most stylish and thematically delivered violent sieges I have seen in a film since the original Assault on Precinct 13 back in 1976. We also get terrific work from the cast in this as each and every one of them manages to be in true form of not only the role they are playing, but also a wonderful comprehension of just where the narrative is going and, just as crucially, why it is headed there. Indeed in the lead role of David, we get terrific work from James Marsden who plays the “fish out of water” so to speak quite well and who also manages to go through the most intriguing metamorphosis offered by the film as he starts as a man who wants nothing to do with violence despite knowing there are moments where it, alongside sneakiness and bullheaded determination are necessary allies, and ends up getting the point where he must become violent in order to stop the violence that has made the lives of him and his wife into a living nightmare. Yet, although Marsden does absolutely wonderful work with his arc in this film, it is Alexander Skarsgård who is absolutely dynamite in the role of Charlie. Indeed here is a guy who is both psychologically and sinisterly a degree above his quite fitting of the stereotypes bestowed upon them pals and as such is their de-facto leader in making David’s life a living hell. Indeed Skarsgård does a wonderful job of not only playing this part through eye contact, but who also manages to both strike a phenomenal balance between amiable, twisted, and just downright hostile whilst also often showcasing this unholy trinity at the same time as he has to watch as his relationship with the protagonists as well as his fellow townspeople manages to crumble like cheese through the duration of the film.

All in all I guess you should know that the 2011 reimagining of Straw Dogs, despite the positives I have mentioned above, is not a great film or even a poster child for how best to do a remake or reimagining. Yet with that being said, this IS most assuredly a solid and well-crafted all the same film that will really do a number on your nerves, really task your mind in a way not thought possible, and ensnare both your attention and imagination and from the moment the film starts till the closing credits start to roll never gives up either. More than that, this film also possesses decent characterization work, good work from a game cast, quality work in both the helming and cinematography departments, action that hits with the force of a full-speed locomotive, and a wonderful atmosphere of both unease and terror in equal measure. Yes this is a film which is most assuredly going to be a challenge for some to sit through due to both the violent content and the darkened streets this film goes down, but if you are up to snuff as it were this is a decent enough film even when taking into account its clichéd squabble between the denizens of Small Town USA and the “city folk” who have just moved to town and who have absolutely no idea what they are in for. On a scale of 1-5 I give Straw Dogs “2011” a solid 3 out of 5.