What do you call a very violent group of rednecks? “Animal crackers.” Can I have a rimshot please? And I’ll be here all week. Thank you very much.
If that stereotypical joke ruffles your chicken feathers, then stay a country mile away from “Straw Dogs,” a film filled with more Southern stereotypes than you can shake a fried dill pickle at. More annoying for people who cotton to originality is that the film marks yet another remake.
This one rips off the 1971 film directed by Sam Peckinpah and starring Dustin Hoffman and Susan George. That film raised a ruckus with its violence, including a rape scene. This version, written and directed by former film critic Rod Lurie, is not likely to raise an eyebrow, which sociologists can blame on multiple factors. I blame Barney. The movie is based on the novel “The Siege of Trencher's Farm” by Gordon Williams.
This version shifts the location from England to Mississippi (Louisiana in actuality), changes David Sumner (James Marsden plays the Hoffman role) from a mathematician to a screenwriter and has his wife Amy (Kate Bosworth replacing George) work as an actress.
The couple show up in the boondocks (where else?) where Amy grew up and settle into her family home. The barn needs repairing so David hires a bunch of good old boys to do the work. They include Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard), Amy’s former high school flame who clearly still has cravings for her. You don’t need a degree in White Trash 101 to know that this arrangement isn’t going to end well.
David shows up at the local bar to solidify his fish-out-of-water standing (he has the effrontery to ask for Bud Lite) while Charlie cozies up to Amy, and Tom Heddon (James Woods), the former football coach turned psychotic drunk, gets to act like a psychotic drunk.
He’s also insanely protective of his promiscuous daughter Janice (Willa Holland), who has a hankering for the mentally challenged Jeremy Niles (Dominic Purcell). Tom doesn’t particularly care for Jeremy, and you could have failed White Trash 101 and still figured out that this situation might turn toxic.
Tom also doesn’t appreciate being told what do by the town’s sheriff (Laz Alonso), who just happens to be black.
And just in case you’re pondering whether there will be blood, the film foreshadows trouble with a nail gun and a bear trap.
And, of course, the good old boys like to hunt, so you know gun play will be part of the package.
For more stereotypes, most of the good old boys act like inbred morons who live to drink and drive and watch football. Why they weren’t all dressed in Confederate flags and whistling “Dixie” I’ll never know.
Interestingly, Charlie does seem to have a brain. How do we know? In one scene, Amy changes the date on a chalkboard pertaining to David’s screenplay on the Battle of Stalingrad from 1943 to 1944. Now why did she do that? Well, later on, Charlie shows up to tell David that his date on the battle should be 1943. Convoluted? You bet.
One of the biggest problems with the film is that neither David nor Amy is particularly likable. This harms the sympathy factor when the good old boys begin behaving badly.
For example, David sides with the hillbillies when she complains about them ogling her.
Of course, seeing a woman jog in a nipple-revealing shirt and hotpants might raise the blood pressure of any man. And after being attacked, what does Amy do? What any woman would do: she goes to a football game.
Chess players may like the scene where David gets foxy with Amy and places chess pieces in a place where they seldom venture. Now that’s checkmate.
Anyway, as far as acting is concerned, Marsden isn’t going to be compared with Hoffman anytime soon. To be fair, he’s also miscast.
The whole point about a pacifist turning into a killer loses its full impact because Marsden, even wearing glasses, looks like someone who could kick some derriere. That said, Amy does her best to emasculate David when he doesn’t get tough on the rubes at first. These two almost deserve each other. Bosworth does a lot of screaming at film’s end, but manages to pull herself together to help hubby.
Skarsgard is the lone bright spot in this nonthriller as the Swede brings a whole lot of menace to a part that tries to break out of its stereotypical roots. Woods, meanwhile, puts himself in the running for the one-note nutcase award. He also deserves a better comeuppance.
For more flaws, the continuity police might want to know where Jeremy goes when the violence gets unleashed. But who cares, right? Just let me see some nice, messy revenge killing of hateful caricatures.
So for that reason, “Straw Dogs” should do well with its young adult target audience who likely never saw the original and likely don’t care.
I’d be interested in finding out how Mississippians react to these stereotypes. Do they dismiss them, laugh at them or say, “Hey, that guy looks like my cousin?” I guess it would be futile to point out that Mississippi has produced some of this country’s greatest writers. William Faulkner, anyone? But, shoot, that won’t sell tickets.
STRAW DOGS (R for strong brutal violence including a sexual attack, menace, sexual content and pervasive profanity). Cast includes James Marsden, Kate Bosworth, Alexander Skarsgard and James Woods. 2 stars out of 4.