Life Is Like A Box Of Warm Shit – A Review Of Straw Dogs (2011)

The original Straw Dogs is not a flawless film. It does however, deserve the cult status it has obtained. When I watch a remake, I do my best to judge the film on its own merits, rather than constantly comparing it to the original. The crew being Straw Dogs made this impossible for me to do. Shot for shot remakes are nearly impossible to pull off. This is why most remakes are more of a reimagining of the source material. Take Dawn of the Dead for example. They took a simple concept, zombies in a mall, and went their own way with it, and ultimately it’s a better film because of that fact. Despite the fact that I’m a fan of Gus Van Sant’s PSYCHO remake, there’s no denying that it’s universally loathed. This remake tried to have its cake and eat it to, but balancing a thin line between reimagining, and a shot for shot remake.

If you’re going to remake a piece of work like Straw Dogs, you better have a deep understanding of the original source material. It can’t just be a recreation of key scenes, you have to master the atmosphere, the mood, the relationships between characters – all of these things play a key role in the success of your genre film remake. A piece of film like Straw Dogs, has been analyzed from top to bottom by cinephiles. Scenes are made more or less effective by the tension building between the characters. It’s less about the scene its self, and more about the effect it’s going to have on the current situation between the characters involved. In the original film, the tension between David and Amy was so think that it was almost visible on-screen. With every event, you could feel the divide happening. David resented Amy because he felt like she expected him to behave like a meathead, much like the men she grew up with that were currently bashing in the walls of their house. Amy resented David, because to her, he appeared to be a coward. David’s rational thought pattern was a sign of weakness.

These things were all glossed over, perhaps getting a brief mention or two, but the tension was done away with almost entirely. When you come across scenes such as Amy flashing the men from the upstairs window, it makes less sense in that context, and loses much of its impact. Couple that with the fact that they decided to show no nudity in said scene(Or in the entire movie, for that matter), and it’s a recipe for disaster. For some reason, early reaction to the film spun controversy around the “rape scene”. Having seen the original again very recently, and remembering how they handled the scene in the “Last House” remake, I was unsure as to how they would handle it. While rape is a despicable act, and any representation of it on film is uncomfortable for most, the scene was handled so sloppily, so devoid of emotion, that it had nearly no impact at all. I have no clue why people were talking about it, as it’s certainly one of the weakest aspects of the film.

When I first saw the trailer for this update, it appeared like they were selling it as the newest rape revenge thriller. Knowing that the original was anything but a rape revenge movie, I was unsure of whether or not they would include the pedophile character, and if they did, would he be the component that brings this situation to a boiling point? I have to wonder what the casting director was smoking when they decided to cast Dominic Purcell in this role. I’m all for an actor expanding their resume, but some actors are typecast for a reason. Dominic Purcell has had moderate success as a big, sometimes oafish bad ass. Casting him as the mentally challenged pedophile was a huge failure. Dominic stumbles through the role, seemingly channeling Tom Hanks performance as Forest Gump, and turns the character, renamed to Jeremy, into a complete joke.

Much of what brings the audience around to almost sympathizing with the characters trying to get into the house, is the scene where Janice(Sally) dies. It’s a disturbing scene, reminiscent of Frankenstein. It serves multiple purposes. It sets the stage for the finale, allows the audience to understand a bit of the rage that’s about to happen, and gives us a little bit of understanding of the character of Jeremy(Henry). The scene in the remake not only does away with most of this, but it barely even reveals to the audience that the girl has been killed. I realize that there is a taboo prevalent in American cinema in regards to showing on-screen violence involving children, but lets be honest here – This is an important scene in the movie, and cutting it down the way they did takes away most of the impact of what’s about to happen. Also, the actress playing the role of a 15 year old girl, is a weathered 21 year old. I realize they probably made her up to look “trashy”, being from the south and all, but much more could have been done with the scene to accentuate the rage that’s about to occur in the film’s finale.

Residing as close to the South as I do(I’m in northeastern Kentucky) I was immediately aware that southerners would be angry about the way they were depicted in this film. But, to be completely honest, none of the characters are written, or played in a likable way. Southerners are displayed as trashy, dumb hicks, that like nothing more than to get loaded and head to the local highschool ballgame, and “Hollywood” people are depicted as snobby know-it-alls, constantly smirking at the ignorance of those that surround them. Honestly, at the halfway mark, I kind of wished that the writers would have taken a left turn, and went with a “Wild Bunch” ending, killing every one of these loathsome people.

I’m usually the first person to give you a tongue lashing for bashing a remake, simply because it’s a remake. I’ve lost friends because of it, even. But, a piece of advice from me to any budding filmmakers out there, salivating at the thought of getting the opportunity to direct/produce/write a big budget studio remake. Stick to safe material. Slasher films are easy to remake, because they are simple films that serve only to entertain with simple concepts. When you start digging into films that people refer to as “artful” you run a higher risk of producing a failure. It would be possible to remake such films, but it has to be adapted by someone who understands the original, and whatever novel it’s sourced from. It can’t just be a fan. Being a fan does not mean you “get” the film. To create the amount of tension and emotion behind a film like Straw Dogs, it takes a talent that some filmmakers just do not possess. Writing a character for the screen that does little more than murder people and deliver one-liners, is a completely different task than developing characters, creating tension, and making that tension visible on screen, without having to spell it out for your audience.

Straw Dogs is one remake that would have benefited by deviating from the source material. They could have turned it into a popcorn thriller, much like what the trailer promised. Instead, they chose to tackle elements that were well beyond their level of expertise. I can’t think of any positive things to say about this film, beyond the fact that it looked good. Once you get past the polished visuals though, it’s a complete waste of time. People unfamiliar with the original film, or the book it was based on might find some level of enjoyment, but for those of you that consider yourself genre and cult fans, There’s nothing for you here. If you must see it, just pick it up at a redbox, there’s no need to drop more than a couple of bucks on this one.

(3/10)

About Shawn Savage

I say stuff. Shawn@liberaldead.com @theliberaldead
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