Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Road Trip: Straw Dogs (2011)



Straw Dogs (2011)
A Rod Lurie Film
Kate Bosworth
James Marsden
Alexander Skarsgård
James Woods
Dominic Purcell
Willa Holland

When The Girlfriend stated that she wanted to see a movie this weekend, I didn’t think it would be this one.  If you had read my review of the original, than you would know my feelings about remakes.  Many have tried, and few have succeeded, especially when we’re talking about remaking a film that I consider to be one of the great classic films of all time made by a legendary director who was at the top of his game.  I had decided that I would just bide my time until the DVD release.  It wasn’t to be.  The Girlfriend had other ideas.

This being a Road Trip, I guess I have to at least give you a little bit of the old theatrical atmosphere.   The film was at the Reading Valley Plaza, and if you’ve read my other Road Trip experiences and  guessed that we would end up in a cigar box, you would be right.  But this time I actually have a picture where you can make out the detail and see just how compact these sardine cans are.   And really, do they ever shampoo these carpets or even replace them?  Makes one glad it’s dark in there.

The theater wasn’t that busy, but once again there was a ticket taker who not only seemed out of it, she didn’t even know how to read her screening room chart.  Ten minutes before the movie was to start and she tried to tell us that the previous showing wouldn’t be over until 5:15 so the auditorium wasn’t ready.  Fine, except that it was 5:35 and the movie was supposed to start at 5:50. Can’t these places hire someone who isn’t stoned out of their gourd?

We walked away puzzled, but I told the girlfriend that the ticket taker looked like she hadn’t slept in about four days and we should try again because her times were all screwed.  So we did.  And this time she scanned her list, looked at us with that same blank expression, mumbled something incomprehensible, then waved us though.  And we were right.  The auditorium had been cleaned and in fact there was already two people in there watching the commercials.  (Note:  Obviously this picture was taken as we left)

For some odd reason the film was late starting.  I guess ticket taker girls was in charge of unreeling the movie on time as well. So we were treated to having to sit there and watch the same Sprint ad card over and over again.  A girl came in to count the house, not the ticket girl,  to make sure that no kids had sneaked over to an R rated movie from the latest milking of The Lion King, and then left.  She didn’t seem too concerned about the fact that it was ten minutes past the movie start time, and we hadn’t even seen the previews yet.  But we knew where the fuck to get a Sprint phone if we wanted one. 

Finally, the previews started. And they started with the last 30 seconds of the new Underworld movie.  I had already seen that trailer, so it was no big deal.  There was also a preview about some rich people living forever, and we got one about George Clooney running for president.  And that was it except that I had the sudden urge to go to a polling booth and write in Clooney’s name.

One other thing happened.  My good camera was broken.  Whether it happened at home,  in Bakersfield, or somewhere in between I do not know.  But the top piece of chrome that holds everything in place had broken off.  So now I’m going to have to scrounge around and come up with the cash for a new one, unless I want to be stuck using the half assed one in the I-phone all the time.  I got the thing to work, but I don’t know how much longer that it will last in this condition.

I had made up my mind before going that I would try not to let my high regard for the original Straw Dogs influence my feelings about this remake.  I would judge it just as I would any other film, based on what what we saw.  I decided that even if it was going to be just another entry in a long line of Revenge/action/thrillers, I would accept it on those terms.  Now having seen it, I can now say with 100 percent kind of sort of certainty that straight forward action and suspense  may have possibly been what Lurie was going for.  It not, it doesn’t matter because  I can also say  with about 200 percent certainty that the film sucked regardless of intent.  And since Lurie had Xeroxed much of Peckinpah’s vision, distancing the two films from each other turned out to be impossible. 

If you know anything about the original, or just read my original Straw Dogs Review, then story wise you will know pretty much what to expect.  But I’ll go through the motions anyway because hey, I’m here for you.

David Sumner (James Marsden) and his wife Amy (Kate Bosworth) (or Amy Cakes as she is called by her old boyfriend and others, and no relation to Billie Jo Cakes, Bobbie Joe Cakes, or Bettie Jo Cakes)  return to her old footstompin’ grounds and vacation paradise, Blackwater, Mississippi.  David writes screenplays for a living and is apparently under a tight  deadline so he needs the seclusion offered up in Nowhereland USA.   It also gives the happy couple  the opportunity to repair Amy’s recently deceased father’s house, especially the roof of the garage/barn which was damaged in a tornado.  No word here on if the old man got swept away like some Southern version of Dorothy Gale, trying to save his guns, ammo, and beer supply  from falling into the hands of the wicked witch of the east. 

On their way out to their new manor, they visit the local tavern called  Blackies, where they meet up with Amy’s ex boyfriend from her cheerleading days, Charlie Venner (Alexander Skarsgård).  Good ol’ Charlie  wastes no time coming onto ex-girlfriend, ex-cheerleader Amy, while David is at the bar busy being ridiculed for having fancy shoes and ordering one of them lite beers that are brewed for  lib’ral Hollywood  pussies like him  instead of a full bodied full flavored, beer gut growing  Budweiser.  When he tries to pay with a credit card, the nasty assed bar maid says it’s cash only, and David does know what cash is, doesn’t he?  But I guess this is understandable.  Nobody in Mississippi makes enough money to carry a Visa, Master Card or American Express.  I’m not even sure they have any banks in Mississippi since everybody lives their life broke, except for when they scrounge up some real cash for some real beer. 

It’s obvious these Mississippi feller’s don’t cotton to outsiders, and they waste no time in makin’ that perfectly clear.  But David shouldn’t feel too bad.  The good folks of Blackwater  feel the same way about those other foreigners from places like  Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Tennessee, traveling through where the  I-55 sign  meets the I-20 exit ramp.  You can’t miss it.  There’s a big billboard that says “you are now leaving the 21st century.”  All that outsider type edjucation is jes’ too much for them to deal with. 

This does lead  me to ask the question, if Mississippi is the last state in the country anyone would want to visit, why in the hell would anyone want to live there, Daddy’s house be damned?   David may know about Russkies, Germans, and WWII, but he don’t know shit about the south which is pretty much the same thing Amy tells him later on.  Even if I had never seen this movie and somebody suggested I should move to some hole called Blackwater,  Mississippi because I inherited a house, I’d tell them to burn the son of a bitch down and have a wienie roast because my Yankee ass isn’t going anywhere near that state.  But I digress.

Amy rebuffs Charlie’s advances,  obviously having left the trappings of her previous  life in Backwards Backwoods Blackwater in the pages of the high school yearbook.   She then  left town, got rid of her accent, and went out west to surf, screw around with John Holmes, wins a date with a movie star, marries Bobby Darin,  gets a job at the Daily Planet, goes to MIT then to Vegas to do some gambling, and then finally meets up with and marries David before making this return trip home to strut her good fortune in front of the local yokels.  I mean, there’s only a certain amount of poverty, unemployment, and racism that one can enjoy in a life time before you just have to move on from all that down home  excitement to the peace and quiet of Southern California.

After a scuffle at the bar between the bartender and crazy mentally deranged former high school football coach Tom Heddon, (James Woods), who seems to have escaped out of the Mississippi State Mental Hospital,  David hires Charlie and his old high school football playin’ buddies Norman (Rhys Coiro), Chris (Billy Lush), and Bic (Drew Powell) to fix the barn roof.

Other inhabitants of Backwards Backwoods Blackwater Beer Guzzlin’ Footstompin’ Hometown Mississippi  USA are  Heddon’s 15 year old daughter  Janice (Willa Holland), who actually looks to be about 25 (she is in fact, 20 in real life), the town imbecile,  Jeremy Niles (Dominic Purcell), and his brother, Daniel (Walton Groggins). 

Janice has this thing for Jeremy.  Jeremy is carrying the torch for Janice.  The reason Janice has this thing going on with Jeremy is because she likes pissing off the alcoholic nutcase she calls daddy.  Or at least that’s the way it seemed to me.  Jeremy calls Janice his girlfriend because he doesn’t know any damn  better.

The next morning Charlie and his merry  gang of high school has-beens come strolling in at the crack of dawn to work on Daddy’s roof top, catch some sun rays, and drink some beer, while listening to some shit kicking foot stomping music on their $29 boom box they got on clearance at Wal-mart.  And when they run out of beer, Bic goes into the Sumner’s house uninvited  to grab some more out of their broken’ fridge because that’s the way they do things in Backwards Backwoods Blackwater.  Right neighborly, don’t cha think?  No?  Neither does David, who instead of just telling Bic  to get the hell out of his house, politely complains to Charlie and you know how far that will get you in Hooterville.  But Charlie does agree to arrive a little bit later the next day so as not to awaken David too early.

And that they do, just as Amy is jogging down the road in an effort to lose about ten lbs. from her 80 lb. frame.  She is oblivious to their taunts,  evil eyballin’, and sexual  innuendo  because she is listening to her own brand of  shit kickin’ music on her ipod.  They finally make their presence known by honking at her, and then racing by as they hoot, holler, and whoop it up because they’re just a bunch of good ol’ boys never meanin’ no harm. 

When Amy tells David that the good ol’boys from Hee Haw treated her like a street walkin’ ho, he suggests she try wearing a bra and dressing more appropriately which proves two things:  That in 30 years the woman’s movement has progressed zippo, and that  David can be an ignorant chauvinistic asshole  as well as anybody who lives in Bum Fuck Mississippi.  Amy’s answer to David’s suggestion is to go upstairs, stand blatantly and defiantly in front of a window adjacent to the garage roof, and proudly expose her breasts to God, the ex-jocks and the whole wide world.  But not to us, because we’re just the movie patrons and our ass don’t count. 

When David goes into town, he is tricked by Charlie and the gang into almost wrecking his sports car.  In town, Janice Heddon comes on to Jeremy Niles before being told by Jeremy’s brother Daniel to buzz off.  The current coach of the football team shows up and invites David to bring Amy to the  “pray and preach”, where you ask God for your team to have a great season in church, then head down to the football field and  have a picnic while the team scrimmages to see if God was tuning into your prayer frequency that day. 

The Blackwater high school football team is called the Bengals. I’d say that’s appropriate, considering that to even vote in this town you have to obviously prove you’re some kind of a loser.   At the picnic,  Tom Heddon, also known as that  escapee from the Looney Tunes, begins beating the snot out of Jeremy, warning  him to stay away from his “Janice.”  One begins to wonder if Tom’s being over protective or if he has his own fatherly fanatical perverted incest laden  love desires and designs on Janice  that motivates him. 

Amy, bless her, all 90 lbs. of her, attempts to step in and defend Jeremy.   But David, who is undoubtedly crapping in his pants thinking he might have to step in and defend her against Mad Dog Heddon, pulls Amy away, thus proving his cowardice to us once and for all so we can glorify in his redemption at the end of the film.  Amy storms off, but later that night they find Amy’s cat dead and hanging in the closet.  Amy is sure it’s the Bengals Alumni Society that has murdered the cat, but David says they have no proof because the last thing he wants to do is go up against a bunch of cat killers.  One note:  When David discovers the cat in the closet, it is photographed from across the room.  Hell, unless you’;re expecting it you might not even see the damn thing hanging there.   Compare this to Peckinpah shooting the same scene up close and personal, and the game changing impact that it had in his film.  Once again Lurie takes a Peckinpah scene and turns it into a mere plot device.  But unlike Dustin Hoffman’s David, this David does try to warn Amy, thus further watering down any tension the scene may have had.

The next day while helping David hang an antique bear trap, Charlie once again invites David to go deer  hunting with them, failing to leave out the small but important detail  that they intend to sharpen their own shooting skills using him for target practice. 

While David is out in the forest dodging Bambi and bullets, Charlie sneaks back to the Sumner Estate, attacks Amy and rapes her.  Then he stands by and watches as Norman shows up to rape her as well. 

Out in the woods, after bagging a deer, David realizes he’s been had, especially when the local Deputy Dawg tells him that deer hunting is out of season so it would be considered poaching.  Upon returning home David finds a way to blame Amy for his misfortune, not even realizing how much distress she is in.  And things worsen the next day when Janice Heddon comes up missing, and David accidentally hits Jeremy Niles with his car seriously injuring him.  He  takes him home to wait for the nearest ambulance to arrive from 40 miles away, which is about a twenty to thirty minute trip so at least you know how much longer you’re going to be in the theater.  And if you’ve seen the original, or have seen the trailers, or haven’t even seen any of it, you won’t have to master a course in Hollywood Screenwriting 101 like David did  to know that at this point all hell breaks loose.

As  if you couldn’t tell it, I really hated  this film.  And if you think it’s because I’m partial to Peckinpah’s masterpiece, that may be.  But it’s almost impossible to disassociate the two. One film is a gem, the other one a turd.  It’s so bad that one almost wishes that Rod  Lurie had pulled a Gus Van Sant and cribbed the film scene for scene  shot for shot from Peckinpah’s version  because even that would have been preferable to this mess. 

Lurie telegraphs his intentions from the very moment that Amy and David enter Blackwater.  I take that back.  He doesn’t telegraph, he hits you over the head with a sledge hammer than smacks you across the face with a shovel and finishes it off by capping your knees with a two by four.  Lurie doesn’t understand the first thing about  tension, subtlety, or layers. 

From the moment that David walks up to the bar and is  ridiculed for using a credit card and ordering a lite beer, you know what the director/writer Lurie has in mind.  Yes, it is Mississippi, last in education, first in poverty, racism, and beer guzzlin.  But even these misfits act as if they just  dropped in from a rejected episode of The Dukes of Hazzard

They  are way too far gone and over the top to be even remotely believable.  For a while I wasn’t sure if this was going to be a remake of Straw Dogs, Southern Comfort, or Deliverance, the last two also being great films as well but not known for subtlety.  One could argue all day about the caricature brush Lurie uses to paint the residents of Blackwater with.  But he uses such broad strokes  it quickly becomes cartoonish.  Hell, if he wanted to change things, maybe Charlie should have raped David while Amy was out bagging a deer with Chris and Bic.

Much of the tension in the film is lost because unlike Peckinpah’s film, David and Amy are happily married and for the most part happy go-lucky.  In the original, when Amy screws with David’s chalk board formula, she is begging for attention.  When Lurie’s Amy  changes a date on David’s screenplay timeline, it comes off as nothing more than her being playful and silly and the incident leads no where except for Charlie informing David he has a date wrong, showing that Charlie did have some education somewhere.  Maybe in reform school.

Lurie’s screenplay  also hurts the film in regards to  Amy’s previous relationship with Charlie.  In the original, it seemed more involved than what it does here.  Lurie views it as having been no more than a  high school fling, a relationship that Amy long ago put in the past  and has no intention of revisiting under any circumstances.  And since her marriage to David seems to be in good shape, she’s not at all tempted to pick up where she left off.  If it weren’t for Daddy’s old homestead and David’s writing, I sincerely doubt that anyone could get her to come back to Blackwater for any reason. 

As far as David’s cowardice, it’s here merely  as a plot device and nothing more, so we that we can get to the inevitable slam bang finish where he will find his manhood and overcome all odds to defend his house against the invasion of the redneck people.  In all honesty, it’s not even until late in the game that you would know for sure that he wears the pussy label.  For a writer, it’s amazing how feeble even his verbal comebacks are in regards to Charlie.  Then again, he doesn’t always have his blackboard with the timeline on it for guidance so maybe that’s the explanation. A writer without his timeline is just impotent.   He could always get an I-pad and carry it around with him I suppose.  Cowardice isn’t David’s  problem, it’s his lack of glibness.  Hmmm…maybe that’s why nobody comes here.  I don’t write using a timeline.

In the original version,  when Tom Heddon shoots the magistrate,  you are never 100 percent sure whether it’s accidental, on purpose, or accidentally on purpose.  This version leaves no doubt in your mind as to Heddon’s intentions but the fact that he would do this makes no sense regardless how much of a drunken psychotic he may be. Maybe if the character had been a little more Norman Bates like, and a little less Elmer Fudd like, then his actions might make sense.

The fact that it is Amy that stands up for Jeremy earlier in the film, and is admonished by David for doing so, only adds to the confusion when she wants to turn Niles over to Charlie and the Gridiron Gang and David doesn’t.  The Girlfriend tried to convince me that it was because she was afraid of being raped again by Charlie and Norman, but to me that would only give her more motivation to defend her home, since she now knows what ex-quarterbacks really mean when they talk about scoring a touchdown.

James Marsden is okay as far as it goes which isn’t very far.  There’s just no motivation  in anything he does or say.  One could have come up with a hundred things Amy could do to prevent the workers from eyballin’ her, and telling her to put on a bra and dress differently may have worked in 1971 but not here. Here, it just comes off as incredibly dull witted and stupid.  

I like Kate Bosworth, and have loved her in most of the films I linked to in the review.  But as Amy, she’s either not just up to the task or was severely handicapped in her performance by how Lurie saw the character which is your basic bland and boring brand X wife. I’m really inclined to blame Lurie here. He  gives Bosworth nothing much to do except smooch with David, explain the locals, and be on hand for her big rape scene. Her character is totally one dimensional. With no conflict in the marriage, Lurie uses her as a liaison between David the locals and their customs, so she has to sort of like her roots but just not that much. If he had written the character as he should have, making the fact that she’s back in the Backwoods Backwards Blackwater only as a temporary necessity that she loathes, it would have added a whole new layer of conflict between her and the locals.  It doesn’t help that Susan George leaves such an indelible impression in Peckinpah’s film in the same role,  but she was given a lot more to work with. 

Once this film is on DVD, I have a mind to do a scene by scene comparison that explains further why it’s such a major failure.  The reasons are way too numerous to list here.   The preliminary work has already been done at Movie Smackdown, and they too declare Peckinpah the obvious winner.

But the worst of the worst and my nominee for next years Razzie Awards is James Wood’s Coach Heddon.  I don’t know if the way this guy is written was his idea or Lurie’s, but when I mentioned cartoonish characters, think of Elmer Fudd on steroids and you’ll envision Heddon.  And after a while it becomes ludicrous and a major distraction in every scene he’s in.  Still, how can an actor this good be so god awful bad?  What a mess.

But in a way, that’s fitting and proper.  The whole film is a mess, and the more I think about it the more I just get  irritated with the whole damn concoction and feel like taking a nail gun and hammering Lurie’s hands to the nearest window frame.  I’ve seen bad movies before, but very few of them leave me as angry as this totally wasted effort. If Lurie even gave a crap about the original, he doesn’t show it here.  It’s sort of like thinking you have a better idea, and all you can come up with is a damn Edsel. 

I’ve thought this over, and I wasn’t going to do this but I feel I’ll find no inner peace until I do.  I haven’t given one of these out in a long long while, but Lurie’s left me no choice.  He is now  an honored recipient of the Poo Poo on you award.

But if it’s any consolation, Ebert gave this crap three stars (he gave the original two so go figure) and I’m sure Rod Lurie values his opinion more than mine.  But I think Ebert is still trying to justify his poor rating of Peckinpah’s film from 30 years ago, and it isn’t working. I’m beginning to doubt that he even remembers the film. But to balance things out a little more, I asked The Girlfriend’s for her in depth analysis, which she gave to me in no uncertain terms.  “I really liked it,” she says.  See, she’s just like Ebert.  That’s all you need.  But here’s the trailer anyway. 


  1. I loved your review. Very insightful and lots of fun to read. You can count on me checking this website on a regular basis from now on.

    Robert Nowotny

  2. Thanks. I really appreciate that. Loved you site as well. Don't know how I missed that.