Straw Dogs: You Can’t Teach a Remake New Tricks

Amidst the wave of remakes in the 2000’s, Hollywood occasionally ventured outside horror. Spike Lee re-visited controversial Korean revenge-thriller Old Boy in 2013. And Martin Scorsese himself re-worked Hong Kong pot-boiler Infernal Affairs into his 2006 crime thriller, The Departed. Yet one of the more ambitious remakes in recent memory was Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. A meditative 1971 psychological thriller, Peckinpah’s controversial classic was, in many ways, an ideal candidate for a remake. With 40 years of social changes, Straw Dog’s morally complex commentary on human nature and violence would make for an interesting contemporary re-imagining.

Straw Dogs a Morally Ambiguous 70’s Thriller

After the dissolution of the Hays Code and its stranglehold on film content, the director as auteur emerged in the 1970’s. What followed was a push to transgress against past movie-making values. Throughout the early and mid-70’s, movies were edgier. And it wasn’t just the boundary-pushing violence and sexual content. The Godfather, The French Connection, Mean Streets, Deliverance – these were morally challenging movies. Amidst this wave of ‘New Hollywood’ films and moral ambiguity, director Sam Peckinpah released his controversial Straw Dogs. Some critics celebrated it; others derided it for its violence. In particular, Straw Dogs drew outrage for its rape scene, eliciting accusations of misogyny.

Along with its methodical pacing, Peckinpah also refrains from making any clear moral conclusions.

Though Straw Dogs descends into what audiences would now call ‘home invasion’ horror, it’s a psychological thriller, not a horror movie. At its core, Straw Dogs has ambitions of exploring human nature. Throughout the movie, Peckinpah is intent on exposing the insidious violence that lays beneath hundreds of years of socialization. Dustin Hoffman’s meek mathematician, David Sumner, represents the liberal educated American elite. It’s Sumner’s reprisal in the brutal climax and his subsequent confused response (“I got them all“) that comments on the inherent human capacity for violent. Yet the violence in Straw Dogs is infrequent, which makes it all the more shocking. Along with its methodical pacing, Peckinpah also refrains from making any clear moral conclusions. As a viewer, Straw Dogs doesn’t leave you satisfied with Sumner’s vengeance. Instead, Peckinpah makes the audience complicit in the film’s brutality.

Straw Dogs Remake Struggles to Justify Its Existence

In all fairness, the 2011 Straw Dogs remake is not a bad movie. Writer and director Rod Lurie shows genuine reverence for the source material. That is, the remake never feels like a cheap cash-in. In fact, Lurie weaves in some interesting symbolism that nearly elevates the movie from its exploitative tendencies. There’s also a sufficient amount of awkwardness and tension in the build-up to the inevitable confrontation between Sumner and the local thugs. While his real-life persona is divisive to say the least, James Woods is utterly terrifying in his role. And for audiences unfamiliar with Peckinpah’s original, who are just looking for a home invasion movie, Straw Dogs’ final act is visceral enough to be satisfying.

… Lurie’s remake has no new insight or subtext.

Unfortunately, Lurie seems to like the source material so much that he does little to distinguish his remake. Yes, the setting changes from rural England to small-town America. David Sumner is updated from a liberal mathematician to a liberal Hollywood screenwriter. There are a few other superficial changes here and there. But for all intensive purposes, the 2011 Straw Dogs is the 1971 Straw Dogs with one big exception. Rod Lurie is not Sam Peckinpah. Love or hate the original movie, Peckinpah had something to say about violence and human nature. In contrast, Lurie’s remake has no new insight or subtext. In the 40 years that have passed since the original movie, commentary on violence and human nature should have some new ideas to explore.

Remake Feels Pretty Behind The Times

If Peckinpah’s commentary on masculinity and violence shocked audiences in the 1970’s, the Straw Dogs remake is seriously out-of-step in the 2000’s. Susan George’s ‘Amy Sumner’ was a thinly written and, arguably, sexist representation of women in 1971. While Kate Bosworth (The Domestics) is a good actress, she’s stuck playing the same character. It’s an equally problematic aspect of the movie that is unlikely to find a larger audience over time. Even in just the eight years that have passed, Lurie’s Straw Dogs has already aged poorly in this regard.

Even in just the eight years that have passed, Lurie’s Straw Dogs has already aged poorly …

And for some inexplicable reason, the sexual assault scene remains in the remake. Regardless of arguments about execution and necessity in Peckinpah’s version, there’s little justification for its inclusion in the remake. Though the remake precedes the #MeToo movement, women in the entertainment industry had been debating the use of violence against women as a plot device. For example, female artists and filmmkers have decried the ‘women in refrigerators’ trope, or ‘fridging‘ since the late 1990’s. Simply put, it adds nothing to a remake that already has several stark illustrations of toxic masculinity. That Bosworth’s character is so underwritten only exacerbates the problem.

Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs Still Sets The Bar

Remaking Peckinpah’s controversial classic wasn’t necessarily a bad idea. Straw Dogs is a movie filled with ambiguous themes open to re-interpretation for a new social context. Look no further than Scorsese’s Cape Fear remake for an illustration of remaking a movie through a new lens. Yet in spite of its potential, Lurie fails to add anything new to Peckinpah’s vision. As a result, the 2011 Straw Dogs is a remake that aspires to a lofty vision, but ultimately feels pointless and dated.

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I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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