Let’s get this out of the way: Straw Dogs is a remake of an equally brutal and controversial 1971 film starring Dustin Hoffman. I have never seen the original, so my impression of this remake/update is completely as a stand-alone film. Apparently the original was a shocker, and was banned in some places because of its depictions of rape and excessive violence, and the 2011 version skimps on neither of those plot points. Where the film delivers successfully (in my opinion) is building up to those moments in a slow-burn, almost unbearable fashion.
David and Amy Sumner (James Marsden and Kate Bosworth) pull into Blackwater (aka “Backwater” as Amy jokes), Mississippi in their vintage Jaguar. Sure, they stick out like a sore thumb, but even though they are all Hollywood (he’s a screenwriter, and she’s a TV actress), Amy is actually returning to her roots. She has inherited the family home, which has been damaged in a recent hurricane, and they think a short break from the Hollywood scene will be good for them both.
However, as soon as they walk into the local bar, you know that David will never fit in. He’s a bit preppy-ish, and his friendly-on-the-surface demeanor comes across a a wee-bit patronizing to the local boys. Shoot, even his auto-tinting glasses make him look like kind of an asshat. When Amy’s ex-high school boyfriend Charlie (Alexander Skarsgård) sidles up to their booth, you have to admit he is sexy with a rough Southern charm (even if it is immediately clear he never got over their breakup). To overcompensate and make friends with Amy’s old bunch, David agrees to hire Charlie and his posse to fix up their barn. How do you say: Bad. Idea.
Straw Dogs progresses at its own sweet pace. Little things between the Sumners and the local boys start to cause tension. As David tries to bond with them, it only gets worse. There is a moment where David asks the guys to demonstrate how to set a bear trap that he finds in the living room. The huge claw sits there in the middle of the floor for the entire scene, set open, wide and toothy, ready to spring. While watching this scene, I was always uncomfortably aware of this tool of violence being in the room, as the characters size each other up pretend to have friendly conversation. Moments like this work very well in setting up the explosion of violence that you just know is coming.
Now, I normally don’t like brutal violence and carnage in films, so I really didn’t know what I was walking into with Straw Dogs. I can say that I was so tense during the film that for the last half hour or so I was grabbing my friend’s leg so hard that I probably left a claw-shaped bruise on her thigh.
Straw Dogs is certainly not a feel-good film, and will do no service to the South’s (cinematic) reputation of being full of small-town, scary, violent, rapist hicks. But as a slow burn thriller that leads to an almost unbearable showdown of pretty much all the characters in the film, I felt the movie certainly does its job effectively.