The stereotypical Southern rednecks indulging in uncivilized behavior in the remake of "Straw Dogs" seem like they grew up watching the original 1972 movie. They also seem likely to have tossed back a few beers while watching "Deliverance," released that same year.
Although the new version would be a disastrous choice for a romantic date movie, it's a bluntly effective reminder of what happens when polite people encounter impolite people. Once the rules of etiquette have been breached, it's survival of the fittest.
Director Sam Peckinpah's original "Straw Dogs" came out when some Hollywood movies violently reflected the unruly social conditions of that period. Starring Dustin Hoffman as an American mathematician and Susan George as his wife, the movie had them moving to a supposedly pastoral English village and then rudely discovering that not all Englishmen are gentlemen. It remains a jolting cinematic experience.
Although writer-director Rod Lurie's remake involves noteworthy changes in geography and occupation, the sadistic dynamics remain much the same. David Sumner (James Marsden) is a Los Angeles screenwriter working on a script about the 1943 Battle of Stalingrad. David is about to learn that his own life will become a battle to the death. His wife, Amy (Kate Bosworth), is a moderately successful actor whose TV series recently ended.
Wanting to escape the glitter-dusted pressure of life in the Hollywood fast lane, David and Amy decide to move to the small town where she grew up in Mississippi.
Zipping into town in their Jaguar, they pass a lot of pickup trucks along the way. This is meant as an early warning sign that they may be in for trouble down in the Delta.
Amy is genuinely welcomed back by her high school pals, but David receives as warm a welcome as the occupying Union Army did at the end of the Civil War. Sporting Confederate decals on their trucks and blurting Rebel-evocative yells, these 21st-century good ol' boys don't take kindly to outsiders who use big words. Indeed, "Straw Dogs" serves as a paranoid fable about what happens when Left, er, West coast intellectuals visit the southern heartland.
Trouble happens fast when Amy's ex-boyfriend from high school, the dangerously handsome Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard), decides to reclaim her. Poor David does not realize what he's in for when he naively hires the cleverly conniving Charlie and his rougher-edged friends to replace the Sumners' barn roof. The ensuing rooftop tension will give pause to anyone contracting for roof repairs after the recent storms.
Even when David realizes that he has moved into a Mississippi martial conflict that qualifies as his domestic Stalingrad, he can't figure out a way to protect himself, Amy and her family's otherwise charmingly rustic house. The insular town seems likely to side with the redneck roofers, and the town sheriff may or may not prove trustworthy in a showdown.
This retooled "Straw Dogs" sprinkles a few references into its script to make it seem relevant to today, but such allusions are no more than a topical veneer for a primal story. "Straw Dogs" tensely cuts to the chase in pitting David and Amy, who are educated, polite and have good dental care, against folks who mostly fall short in these categories.
As the violence escalates, you're swept up in a single-minded story that won't quit until plenty of blood has been shed. It's not a pretty picture, but it does get to you. If nothing else, you will learn new uses for nail guns and bear traps. Grade: B
"Straw Dogs" (R) is now playing at area theaters.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times