I do not profess much technical knowledge over the art of film, but being a journo hack and having spent a portion of my summer on Hollywood Blvd it seems fitting that I try my hand at writing something that roughly resembles a review. My victim of choosing is mere happenstance, as I fully intended to donate my free half-day in submission to the relentless ad campaign of the newly released Contagion, however for reasons of partial intrigue and partial laziness (Contagion would’ve entailed a two hour wait) I decided to see Rod Lurie’s remake of the 1971 classic Straw Dogs.
As I walked into the film, however, I knew nothing of Rod Lurie, nor of Straw Dogs (save the trailer) and I certainly knew nothing of the celebrated 1971 original. As I mentioned, I went to see the film almost completely unintentionally and I feel that I was subsequently in a most advantageous position not often afforded to the modern-day film critic; that of one with a light heart and an open mind.
(Indeed, I had no idea that I would be writing this review either.)
The film is wonderfully shot from the outset, showing Blackwater, Missisippi in all its parochial glory. The still shots of nature are luscious to behold and a marvel for the viewer – a brief window into the (largely) peaceful world of the deer in the enchanting forests. Lurie makes an excellent contrast between the vivid beauty of the woodlands and the underlying tension that leads the film to its explosive climax. Accentuated by the heavy silences and leaving the imagination to run free into a world of horrific trepidation, the plot incubates a foreboding that lurks in the shadows from the very outset of the film, slowly taking shape as the events begin to unfold that lead to a gruesome but yet unknown ending.
It is one of those plots that performs a double-feat of storytelling mastery – on one count by leaving you at every juncture screaming inwardly at the characters not to make the choices that creep them slowly, inevitably, towards the horrific climax, imploring fate to give the characters the happy ending that your morality craves. And yet morbid curiosity keeps you transfixed, encapsulated by the ignorant & bullish traits inherent in human nature, goading them further forward into the morass of miscommunicated hell.
On the other hand, whilst you know from the outset that affairs will not end well for at least some of the characters (and even have some prescient predictions during the film), Gordon Williams (writer of the novel The Siege of Trencher’s Farm that inspired Straw Dogs) keeps you guessing until the last moment of the exact way in which the proverbial s*** will hit the fan.
For a film so horrifically portrayed in the trailer, it is remarkable how rarely the concept of evil rears its head in the film itself. This makes the gut-churning morbidity all the more painful – that the ensuing chaos is all the result of a few staunch redneck values, chronic miscommunication and an unfortunate culture clash.
The film has not been received particularly well by critics, denounced as a shoddy remake of a solid chapter in the history of film. Mote though it may be in the eye of Sam Peckinpah’s classic, as a first-time viewer with no prior experience of the original I think it’s treatment has been unfair to say the least. It is a feast for the eyes and the ears, wraps up a number of nice metaphors and parallels (eg. Of Mice and Men, The Notebook) seamlessly into the plot without seeming cumbersome or forced, and has at its core a fine story that is told very well. It may not be genius, but I applaud Straw Dogs for leaving me feeling entertained enough to write a review of my own volition. And in these times when we are quick to criticise but slow to praise, that is a delightful rarity.