'Straw Dogs' (R)

Straw Dogs is an artful provocation — a meditation on masculinity and societal mores in the guise of an explosive thriller. While remaking Sam Peckinpah’s controversial 1971 classic, writer-director Rod Lurie (The Contender, The Last Castle) has kept the plot virtually intact. What makes the two films feel radically different is tone. Where Peckinpah was borderline nihilistic, Lurie is unabashedly humanist, simultaneously celebrating and mourning the primal savagery we all harbor within us — a savagery that has been lulled into dormancy by civilization.

On paper, James Marsden and Kate Bosworth seem like odd substitutes for Dustin Hoffman and Susan George: These young, attractive actors are best known for their work in comic-book movies (X-Men, Superman Returns) and comedies. But their casting turns out to be a stroke of genius — so far removed from the stars of the original film that the inevitable comparisons are rendered moot. Marsden and Bosworth, delivering career-high performances both, make these characters their own.

The story remains simple: Hollywood screenwriter David Sumner (Marsden) and his actress wife Amy (Bosworth) relocate from the West Coast to her small hometown in Mississippi to restore and then sell her family home. The locals still remember Amy fondly, especially her ex-boyfriend Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard), a former high-school football star whose greatest triumphs are behind him. Charlie is obviously still in love with Amy, but he’s respectful of her marriage and doesn’t overstep his boundaries — at least for a while.

The trouble begins when the Sumners hire Charlie and his crew to fix their roof. The workers’ constant presence and rude behavior — one of them walks into the house uninvited and takes a beer from the fridge without asking — gradually takes a toll on the marriage. Hairline cracks become fissures. David suggests that Amy stop dressing so provocatively (“Maybe you should wear a bra”). She responds with anger, claiming she dresses that way for him. The word “coward” is flung around. The men sense David’s emasculation: They can practically sniff it in the air, and they grow bolder in their transgressions. Charlie admires Amy from afar, hammer in hand. An aura of menace develops. Suddenly, even the most commonplace act seems fraught with danger.

In Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, you watched the characters from a distance, like lab rats in a clinical study of marital dysfunction, but you never related to them as people: They were strange and unknowable. In Lurie’s version, you genuinely like the Sumners and understand their union — David is essentially the audience surrogate — so you feel the tension in your gut as the couple faces increasingly threatening intrusions and violations. Lurie’s Straw Dogs argues that we are products of our environment and that we learn to survive by embracing the attitudes and values around us, even when they contradict our own instincts. When a bored David walks out on a church sermon, he’s not aware of the offense he’s committing against the locals. But he, like Amy, will eventually learn by force.

Much like Peckinpah’s film, the new Straw Dogs climaxes with an eruption of extreme violence, and the sequence is both cathartic and corrosive. There is a great tragedy to the bloodbath, but there is great victory, too. You can only push people so far before they break — or start to fight back. The conflagration that ends Straw Dogs is more triumphant than lamentable: Sometimes, you have to be taken to the edge of the abyss to find out who you really are.

Cast: James Marsden, Kate Bosworth, Alexander Skarsgard, Dominic Purcell, Laz Alonso, James Woods.

Writer-director: Rod Lurie. Based on the screenplay by David Zelag Goodman and Sam Peckinpah and the novel The Siege of Trencher’s Farm by Gordon Williams.

Producer: Marc Frydman.

A Screen Gems release. Running time: 109 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, gore, sexual situations, rape, strong adult themes. Opens Friday Sept. 16 at area theaters.


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