In 1971, when the original Straw Dogs rudely debuted, the dominant mood in American arts and letters was left-leaning and anti-war. To many reviewers, Sam Peckinpah’s film seemed reactionary, arguing that Earthly peace and love were impossible, and accentuating the proposition by setting up a violent assault on a young couple in the merry ole English countryside. Back then, when right-wingers wanted to “prove” the futility of pacifism, they often fell back on visceral arguments like, “What would you do if the Red Chinese invaded us and raped your girlfriend?” Peckinpah’s film gave us invasion, rape, and, to turn the screw, a dewy-eyed academic victim (Dustin Hoffman, in a role he claims to regret) who turns vengeful, of course. Peckinpah might have been a crypto-Nazi, but he knew how to make movies. And even if you despised the message, it was hard to argue with his film, which stated that, then and now, the world is full of violence.
But Rod Lurie is no Sam Peckinpah, and in 2011, this same story without the hippie idealism surrounding it just looks stupid. Doubtless, the filmmakers knew this from the start, as they desperately try to make the plot make sense by over-motivating everything. The events leading up to a bloody siege on the home of the couple (played by James Marsden and Kate Bosworth) include plot points like a hung cat and a mentally challenged hulk (think Lennie in Of Mice and Men); it’s stuff that seemed thematic in the original, but here just feels like overkill. In turn, Lurie fails to connect these ham-fisted attacks logically; he just throws everything out, while Marsden, without Hoffman’s pacifist halo, comes across more dumb than sacrificial.
Still, Lurie’s Dogs has undeniable moments. Cross-cutting horrors — like a rape played out while the victim’s hubby shoots his first deer — are obvious but engage us breathlessly. Nonetheless, the bloody conclusion will likely make you laugh. There’s a bear trap involved, and right about the time it snaps, it already seems overdue, much like the film’s sad conclusion that violence prevails. Giving into that makes straw dogs of us all.