Alexander Skarsgard is the only reason to subject yourself to Rod Lurie’s bearable but superfluous remake of the 1971 Sam Peckinpah thriller Straw Dogs. The Swedish-born actor plays the bad guy: Charlie, the tall, Deep South ex-boyfriend of the pointy-headed L.A. hero’s wife, Amy (Kate Bosworth). Skarsgard’s Charlie speaks gently, relying solely on his size and unblinking pale blue eyes to emasculate David (James Marsden), who has traveled with Amy to her family home to finish a script. You don’t know if Charlie is too amused by David’s lack of conventional manliness to want to pound him into the ground or if he’s just unusually patient, waiting for the moment to take back what’s rightfully his. Perhaps he doesn’t know himself. It doesn’t help David’s chances of finishing his script that Amy — or “Amycakes,” as Charlie still calls her — goes jogging every day in short-shorts and see-through sweaty little top, past Charlie and the local cretins fixing the couple’s roof.
That Amy seems oblivious to the men’s unusually intense style of leering is one of the many things in this update that doesn’t track. Susan George, who played Amy in Peckinpah’s original, was bored and resentful of her professorial older husband (Dustin Hoffman) and visibly turned on by her effect on the locals, Cornish* in that version. But she was turned on, too, during a sexual attack by the ex-boyfriend (although not by his pal pitching in and sodomizing her). Lurie knows he can’t possibly get away with making his female lead appear to be “asking for it” — and presumably, having written and directed films with strong female protagonists (The Contender), he wouldn’t want to. So Bosworth’s character is all over the place: now childlike and petulant, now reckless (she opens her top for the men on the roof), now grown-up and wary. It’s not that she’s large and contains multitudes; it’s that she’s pieced together from old and new parts.
But Marsden’s character makes no sense, either. Sure, he has been dumbed down from academic to screenwriter — but he’s a highbrow one, penning a script about the siege of Stalingrad while listening to the "1812 Overture." He wears a Harvard shirt. When Charlie asks if he likes football (that’s the local obsession, along with hunting), he says not really, except of course for the Harvard-Yale games. Groan. Marsden twitches a lot and breathes through his mouth (showing his Bugs Bunny teeth) and does a variation of Christopher Reeve’s Clark Kent — which in Reeve’s case was Superman’s brilliant put-on and in Marsden’s just overacting. In the original, when the violence finally erupts and David tells Amy they’ll be all right, Hoffman makes his assurances faintly hysterical, part fear, part odd exhilaration at the sudden lack of ambiguity. Marsden just says the lines.
While Lurie was relocating the action, couldn’t he have changed the risible subplot, in which the young daughter of the local coach (here snarled by James Woods as if auditioning for the next Pirates of the Caribbean movie) comes on to the town simpleton? In that role, Dominic Purcell just blanks himself out, as if he were a robot. Lurie apes Peckinpah’s strong foregrounds and canted angles, and the early scenes in the local watering hole have a boisterous energy. But it’s the wrong kind of energy — like a Saturday Night Live parody of Straw Dogs. About the only new ideas here are the swipes at Deep South conservatism, at men who don’t like you disrespecting their God but feel fine about violating your wife. They also stand with Rick Perry on global warming.
In fairness, I saw Straw Dogs on 42nd Street at 12:01 a.m. with an audience primed for blood. I couldn’t tell if they loved it, but even without a lick of violence for the first hour and change, they were held. The story has a primitive power, and the dubious scenario — wimpy intellectual becomes a man by standing up and killing to defend his woman and home — hasn’t lost any of its appeal. And how about that bear trap!
*This post has been corrected to show that in the original movies the local were Cornish, not Scottish.