Unleashing the 'Straw Dogs'
Director Rod Lurie reshapes Sam Peckinpah's controversial 1971 classic for a new generation.
Rod Lurie, director of the politically charged dramas Deterrence, The Contender and Nothing But the Truth, has spent plenty of time in the hot seat. But the controversies over those movies are nothing compared to the tempest that is certain to accompany his latest film: a remake of Sam Peckinpah’s polarizing 1971 classic, Straw Dogs.
“One of these days I want to make a romantic comedy where I don’t have to deal with all this hell that rains down on me with every film I make,” Lurie says, chuckling ruefully. “Somehow I always seem to choose the most difficult path.”
With Straw Dogs, which opens Friday, Lurie has willingly placed a giant bull’s-eye on his back, knowing critics will be lining up to sling poisoned arrows at him for daring to remake one of the seminal films of the 1970s — a hallowed decade of American cinema.
But it’s been 40 years since the original film exploded onto popular culture. An entire generation has never seen Straw Dogs or even heard of it. And Lurie’s version of the story, while seemingly identical to the original on the surface, imparts a critically different message from Peckinpah’s film.
“Peckinpah was a master filmmaker — one of the greatest of all time — and he had a lot of integrity,” Lurie says. “But he had a philosophy that is distinctly different from my own. At the end of his film, the hero finds the animal inside him. At the end of my film, the hero finds the man inside him.”
Peckinpah’s film starred Dustin Hoffman and Susan George as David and Amy Sumner, a couple who move from the United States to a rural village in Cornwall, England, Amy’s hometown. David is a brainy introvert — a self-obsessed mathematician who looks down on the world. Amy is a beautiful trophy wife. The intellectual gap causes somewhat-public marital strife, and the locals make it clear the Sumners are not welcome. The situation deteriorates at alarming speed, and the consequences are shockingly brutal.
Based on the novel The Siege of Trencher’s Farm by Gordon Williams, Straw Dogs was a box office hit and the cause of a firestorm: Released in the same month that Dirty Harry and A Clockwork Orange blasted into theaters, Straw Dogs upped the explicit violence ante. How much carnage was enough?
Peckinpah trimmed his film to avoid an X rating, but outrage abounded. In Life magazine, critic Richard Schickel deemed the film “literally sophomoric … unredeemed, unrelenting evil.” Writing in The New Yorker, the esteemed Pauline Kael called Straw Dogs “the first American film that is a fascist work of art.”
Today, the film is viewed much differently. “I think Pauline Kael was off-base,” says critic Marshall Fine, author of Bloody Sam: The Life and Films of Sam Peckinpah. “When Straw Dogs came out, feminism was in its first heavy flower and everything was being seen through that lens — not necessarily fairly. Peckinpah never really understood the power his films had. I think his intention was to make an exciting movie about how far a person can be pushed and at what point they snap and become exactly what they think they are fighting against.”
In the new Straw Dogs, James Marsden’s David is now an amiable screenwriter; Kate Bosworth’s Amy is tighter with her husband; instead of far-flung England, the setting is rural Mississippi. But the effect is the same: Small-town America is a foreign land to David, who inadvertently draws the wrath of the locals (including James Woods and True Blood’s Alexander Skarsgard).
Lurie has lived in Alabama and Tennessee, and he says Straw Dogs is set in the South because the original felt like a foreign-language film to him. “I picked the South is for its color, its look, its richness – for the fact that the accents are so different. All that helped the fish-out-of-water element of the film.
“But the only thing I really wanted to do was to plant these characters in a community where the lifestyle is violence. They live among football, which is a violent sport. They go hunting. ... They are preached to about a violent God. They settle things with bar fights. This could have been set in Boston or Miami or anywhere. There are some communities where everyday life conditions people to violence. That’s a big difference between me and Peckinpah.”
It’s a difference that’s noticeable to others. “Rod [Lurie] has made a really good movie and he’s made it his own,” Fine says about the new Straw Dogs. “You can watch them both and they are two different films. ... But the point is the same in both movies: No matter how intellectual and above that sort of thing we think we are, we all have that violence in us when push comes to shove and it’s kill or be killed.”
Lurie says he was still debating whether or not to tackle the remake until Hoffman blessed the idea at a party in 2008. “When I told him I had the remake rights, Dustin lit up with a big smile, he put his arm around my shoulder and he said, ‘Straw Dogs is a western. It’s a scary western. And Sam had his own ideas about human beings. If you can put your own spin on it, you should do it and have a great time.’”
The late Peckinpah believed in the “territorial imperative,” which anthropologist Robert Ardrey describes as “the inward compulsion in animate beings to possess and defend” their turf — be it their town, their community or their personal home.”
Lurie sees it differently. “Peckinpah believed men are genetically coded toward violence; it was a biological thing for him,” Lurie says. “My point of view is that men are conditioned to violence. Peckinpah often said Hoffman played the villain in his film, because he was the outsider invading someone else’s territory. But I don’t believe that. I think David is the hero. When he’s literally forced to commit violence, you understand that he’s going through a dispiriting experience — that he’s trying not to lose his integrity and succumb to the dark side of human nature.”
Since Straw Dogs boasts one of Hoffman’s most iconic and memorable performances, Lurie decided to get as far away from him as possible when casting David Sumner. He settled on Marsden, best known for playing Cyclops in the original X-Men trilogy, after seeing his performance in the drama Heights.
The actor admits the inevitable comparisons unnerved him. “I’d be a fool if it didn’t give me pause,” Marsden says. “Hoffman was brilliant in the original. [But] if I separated myself from the original film and his performance, this is a role actors would kill for. And my David is very different from Hoffman’s. ... He’s belittling his wife throughout. He’s teaching her how to play chess but beats her handily every time. ... He tortures their cat by throwing fruit at it. And he has that same attitude toward some of the locals. By the end of the movie, all of the other characters are standing in one corner, and he’s standing alone in the opposite corner.
“My David is a little naïve, he wants to fit in, but he’s ultimately well-intentioned,” Marsden says. “He’s kind of the audience surrogate in the story: You see it through his eyes. And at the end, he and his wife are backed into a corner together. There is a lot more depth to their relationship.”
The role of Amy required an actress brave enough to play what Lurie refers to as “The Scene” — perhaps the most controversial element of Straw Dogs, and the one that Peckinpah had to trim in order for the film to receive an “R” rating in the United States. In Britain, the 1971 film was initially rated “X,” then banned outright in 1984 (that ban has since been lifted).
“I always assumed we wouldn’t be able to put a name actress in there, because Peckinpah couldn’t get a name actress,” Lurie says. “The role is really tough: It scares most actresses. When the head of Screen Gems called me and said ‘Let’s go after Kate Bosworth: She is the one actress I know who is like walking courage,” I didn’t think she would do it. She had always struck me as a pretty hummingbird. ... She was very concerned, of course. She wanted to sit with me and look in my eyes and determine how serious I was in keeping the scene contained to its relevance, rather than take it to a gratuitous place. With a scene like that, you have to have complete trust in your director. There was a point when we stopped talking about it, because it became overkill. But she was fully committed to it.”
In 2011, the new Straw Dogs won’t generate outrage for its violence. “Movie violence has changed a lot in the last 40 years,” Lurie says. “It has become so graphic and prevalent, there is almost nothing you can do that will really horrify an audience. Unless you make the violence very relatable — make it so the audience can feel the sting of the punches. My daughter, who is very squeamish, can go see the Saw movies because she doesn’t take what is happening on-screen very seriously. It’s all a sort of big game. Movies about home invasions, like ours or The Strangers, are effective because they are people’s worst nightmares. They can experience it viscerally.”
The level of explicit gore that has become commonplace in films since the original Straw Dogs came out — the inevitable result of the success of everything from Dawn of the Dead to Reservoir Dogs — would have seemed unbelievable in 1971. Will Lurie’s Straw Dogs affect the popular culture like Peckinpah’s did? It’s not clear. But fans of the original will be surprised by how effective — and singular — the new version is, proving that remakes are not necessarily evil on an intrinsic level.
“I want to work in every genre that I can, and the remake is a genre in and of itself,” Lurie says. “The Coen brothers just did a remake [True Grit]. The question is ‘Can you put enough of yourself into it so that I’m remaking Straw Dogs and not Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs?’
Sparked by the remake, the original is being reissued on Blu-ray.
“No one is painting a moustache on the Mona Lisa here,” Lurie says. “It’s my version of the same story, the way there were many versions of Shakespeare’s plays. That’s not to say I would be willing to remake anything. I wouldn’t remake Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, for example. I wouldn’t know how to do that. The Wild Bunch is church and Straw Dogs is state.
“You can’t mess around with church.”