Why on earth would anyone want to remake Straw Dogs? Sam Peckinpah’s original film released in 1971 is a provocative disconcerting examination of man’s basest impulses. Its violence a source of some controversy when it was released seems relatively tame by today’s standards; its core assertion – that we’re all capable of the most extreme barbarism if pushed far enough – still unnerves. But it was very much a product of its time borne out of the social unrest and political upheaval of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. The appeal – commercial and otherwise – of a modernized re-telling would seem perilously limited.
In the new version director Rod Lurie (Resurrecting the Champ The Contender) partly refashions Straw Dogs as a ham-fisted allegory for the increasingly acrimonious red state/blue state divide. It is exceedingly clear which side he’s on.
James Marsden plays David Sumner a Hollywood screenwriter who moves with his actress wife Amy (Kate Bosworth) to her hometown of Blackwater Mississippi after her father’s death. Their stay is intended as only temporary long enough for them to prepare the family home for sale and for David to finish his latest screenplay about the siege of Stalingrad.
Blackwater presents more or less the prototypical (i.e. clichéd) Hollywood vision of a rural Deep South town populated with scruffy churlish yokels who instinctively recoil at anything resembling sophistication. Gun racks and confederate flags and “These Colors Don’t Run” bumper stickers abound. David with his vintage Jaguar credit cards and polysyllabic vocabulary incurs immediate resentment. David’s thinly-veiled condescension doesn’t help matters.
Everywhere he goes David is eyed with suspicion and made to feel unwelcome.
Hoping to ingratiate himself with the townsfolk he hires a local construction crew headed by Amy’s handsome ex-boyfriend Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard) to repair a barn damaged during a recent storm. The men prove less-than-stellar workers drinking on the job leaving early to go hunting and brazenly treading about the house as if they own it. Equivocal by nature David is loath to confront them and Charlie and the boys seize on his timidity. Their provocations soon adopt a more sinister face.
Straw Dogs like its predecessor is built around a climactic final “siege” of the Sumner house when David surrounded on all sides by men intent on taking everything he has is finally driven to fight back. But whereas Pekinpah’s film filled the preceding minutes with scene after scene of troubling moral complexity Lurie’s version can only offer unremitting tedium. His Straw Dogs is more than anything else a terminal bore. At 110 minutes it is actually shorter than the original but it feels a good deal longer. Even a pivotal rape scene – in which the victim’s consent is ever-so-briefly implied – and some virtuoso scenery-chewing from James Woods playing an alcoholic ex-football coach can’t breathe much life into this empty mundane film.
Writer/director Brian Goodman bases this gritty look at a couple of tough guys growing up in South Boston on his own experiences. The reality he brings to the table is what makes this compelling tale a notch above others in the same genre. We first meet Brian (Mark Ruffalo) and best pal Paulie (Ethan Hawke) as they are caught up in a violent armored car robbery. Their entrée into a life of low-level crime is detailed early on in flashbacks in which they are operating under the guidance of a local criminal Pat (director Goodman). Catching up with them in the present day about 12 years later Brian is now married and has two sons while Paulie is determinedly single. Neither has graduated past the workaday life of the average hoodlum and are still taking their lead from the no-good Pat who decides to teach Brian a lesson by gunning him down and leaving him for dead in the snow. Time in prison -- and a conflict between the two friends -- make up the core of the film’s final act when decisions must be made about the eventual paths their lives will take. Fulfilling his promise as one of the screen’s most underrated actors working today Mark Ruffalo gets a three-dimensional role with real guts and complexity. His sterling performance is gritty and finely detailed immersing himself into this low-life loser who is desperately trying -- and failing -- to lift himself up and find a new life. Ethan Hawke is equally fine even if we just saw him play a similar role last year in Sidney Lumet’s similar crime drama Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. Like Ruffalo Hawke completely throws himself into the mind of a Southie and captures the essence of such a character. It’s the two actors’ increasingly conflicted -- and at turns polar opposite -- relationship that makes up the heart of What Doesn't Kill You. Goodman as you might imagine acquits himself nicely in the local criminal role and Amanda Peet nicely underplays Brian’s suffering wife. Donnie Wahlberg (who co-wrote the script) is from that part of the city and adds a good deal of authenticity to his smaller detective role. Brian Goodman an experienced and seasoned actor turns to writing and directing for the first time with remarkably assured self-confidence and a command of exactly what he wants to say. Certainly he’s covering an area he knows well having lived this life in the exact locales in which he’s shooting. With the atmospheric dark gray cinematography of Chris Norr and Robert Hoffman’s sharp editing Goodman’s film delivers with just the right amount of grit and street violence. Mostly though it’s a strong character study. The combination of Goodman’s expertise on the subject and his lead actors’ superlative interpretation pay off in making What Doesn't Kill You so extremely effective. It’s a fascinating and informed look at a place most people will only get to know through the movies.