When I decided to watch Straw Dogs during my customary pre-weekend theatrical visit, I had no idea what kind of film I was walking into. Having not seen the Sam Peckinpah original 1971 cult classic, the only information I had to go on were the opinions of some of my most trusted online reviewers – That this was a dark thriller which offers an exploration of basic human nature instead of cheap thrills. And, to be fair, walking out of the theater, I realized that most of those opinions were spot on.
Straw Dogs is a grim and unsettling film. The opening sequences, where we see shots of the beautiful countryside and greenery where a pack of hunters are stalking a deer, are a testament to this. These shots capture none of the bright colors we’ve seen countless times before in many other films. The entire screen looks tempered and even the green looks dull and pale. This beautiful piece of cinematography by Alik Sakharov is indicative of the film in general; and, more importantly, the characters that populate its world.
David and Amy Sumner are the very definition of a Hollywood couple. He is a screenwriter and she is an actress. Both of them are taking a break from their hectic lifestyle by moving to Amy’s old town of Blackwater, Mississippi. David is thrilled at the prospect of having some quiet so that he can complete his script for a WWII movie. On the other hand, Amy is anxious at the idea of having to catch up with some old acquaintances, now that she is famous and all that. Their first visit to the local bar goes less than as planned. They run into Charlie Venner (Alexander Skarsgard) – who happens to be Amy’s high-school sweetheart – and his band of local rednecks who offer to fix the barn at Amy’s place; and David hires them in a heartbeat. David also gets a demonstration of some of the day-to-day madness with football coach Tom Heddon (James Woods) getting into a hissy fit over some beer.
No sooner have Charlie and his friends begun working on the barn that David realizes that this recluse from the city will not be as quiet as he had imagined. They start working very early in the morning, play loud countryside music interfering with David’s moments of introspection over Beethoven, and walk into the house without as much as pausing for a request. David finds this attitude uninspiring while Amy tries to reason with him that this is how they roll down here. Stranger and darker things start happening soon as the pair try to get accustomed to the new lifestyle.
Moral ambiguity is the keyword here. Until the final half hour, the line between good and evil is definitely blurred. Yes, Charlie and his friends veer more towards the wrong side of the line. However, David, for all his civilized demeanor on the outside, is shown to be no different. He may not like to get his hands literally dirty, but his behavior – like insulting the local townsfolk and walking out during pre-football sermon showing little respect for the congregation – doesn’t exactly lend itself well. Amy, for the most part, is the only character whose side it is worth getting onto. But after being pushed by David to the edge of her senses, she does something so mind-numbingly stupid that it ends up having dire consequences.
The film ramps up the tension during the final half hour becoming sort of a straightforward thriller. The line that was blurred isn’t so anymore, and the characters become defined in clearer black and white terms. There are numerous heart-pounding moments squeezed in here and the film is gripping in a way few thrillers rarely are anymore. However, the ending doesn’t close out things as cleanly as one might imagine. It is intentionally left open-ended for us to ponder about the events we have witnessed. Numerous questions will pop up in our minds like whether this whole mess could’ve been avoided had David heeded Amy’s warnings instead of deciding to man up or had Amy not pulled off her stupid stunt. Although the climax distinguishes good from evil, it is hard not to wonder whether everything is David’s fault; and that maybe the film’s greatest success.
I have never considered James Marsden to be a great actor. He is more or less adequate in all roles and that is the case here as well where there aren’t many sequences that require him to extend beyond his limited emotional range. Kate Bosworth proves to be much more capable in a difficult role. She is clearly able to show Amy’s vulnerability as the film proceeds, and her emotional outbursts at being increasingly frustrated by David’s behavior are spot on. Alexander Skarsgard is perfect as the local roughneck. He never as much as raises his voice until the end, but even quieter moments like the scene where he has a small word with David prove to be discomforting. James Woods’ portrayal of the maniacal coach is arresting while the actors rounding up Charlie’s gang deliver accomplished performances.
As highlighted above, the cinematography is a key component of the film with the usage of diluted hues making for a disturbing atmosphere. There is also some great usage of lighting especially during the climactic standoff that could’ve come straight out of a slasher movie which is perfect in ramping up the adrenaline levels. Music is also critical to setting the mood with composer Larry Groupe perfectly mixing country songs with classical Beethoven compositions.
Ultimately, Straw Dogs is a dark and disturbing motion picture. People who have seen the original suggest that some aspects of the good/evil divide have been diluted in this remake. Having seen through unfiltered eyes, I didn’t feel this was the case. There were very few likeable characters in the film and, by the time the film ended, the director’s grim vision almost felt like an overwhelming assault on my senses. This was not a film I would like to watch for a second time, but the solitary viewing was forceful enough to leave a mark on my memory.