Plenty of remakes, like “Scarface,” “The Departed” and “Ocean’s 11,” hit the bulls-eye, and plenty more fall short. And then there’s the occasional epic fail that’s so out of touch with its roots, it sets a new standard. The remake of “Straw Dogs” is one such travesty — unfaithful to its source material, unjustly stereotypical and offensive on multiple levels. For those who haven’t seen director Sam Peckinpah’s original, Rod Lurie’s interpretation will come off as more of the usual fly-by-night Hollywood schlock, albeit more shocking and violent than most. But if you remember Dustin Hoffman’s hair-raising metamorphosis from timid pacifist to cold-hearted killer, this reimagining of Lurie’s — stripped of all substance — is a film that simply shouldn’t be.
At Quality 16 and Rave
The original was purposeful, intended as a metaphor for the effects of the Vietnam War on society. Leading good guy David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman, “Stranger than Fiction”) brutally massacres his home’s would-be invaders to protect the mentally disabled Henry Niles from their bloody vengeance, then he drives Niles into town. Niles turns to Sumner and remarks, “I don’t know my way home.” Sumner smiles and turns to meet Niles’s gaze, reassuring him, “It’s OK, neither do I.”
The 1971 Sumner’s reply is a tidy summary of every war film that rode the wake of Vietnam. Sumner isn’t a mathematician on sabbatical but a soldier, naïve to the battle that awaits him. Forced to resort to savagery to save his home, his family and his life, he emerges from the fray a shadow of his former self, lost and devoid of purpose.
Funny that the remake should copy nearly every nuance of the original plot and keep all the violence, yet omit its most important scene. Lurie might as well be screaming from the studio rooftop that he’s not about idealism, metaphor or really much of anything else.
The new elements Lurie introduces in his 2011 remake say nearly as much as what’s left out. Instead of Cornwall, England, the “Straw Dogs” revamp is set in the Deep South. Rather than an unassuming mathematics teacher, Sumner is a suave screenwriter fresh out of Hollywood. By leaning on Southern stereotypes — preachers who pray for the football team, indiscriminate fights — Lurie neglects real character development. And when he replaces the old, quiet Sumner with the bombastic new one, Lurie denies him the moral fiber that justifies his killing. The new Sumner is tough to like. Should we root for him when his house is attacked by an F-150 decked with confederate bumper stickers and loaded with rednecks, or did the pompous little bastard have it coming?
The 1971 masterpiece included a powerful statement about the effects of violence on the human psyche. It was a brutal reminder of how a government with an itchy trigger finger could throw soldiers with stable minds and families into the fog of war, only to toss them aside like “straw dogs” after their years of faithful service. Today’s version is a revenge thriller of the basest kind, no better than rape revenge flick “I Spit on Your Grave” in its glorification of depravity.
Like a soldier before the war, the original is composed and purposeful. But Lurie’s take on Peckinpah’s classic looks more like some returning soldiers — a vapid, empty shell of a film.