Review: The Best Tricks in ‘Straw Dogs’ Are the Old Ones

Nobody needed to remake the Sam Peckinpah classic, but this potboiler offers a few sleazy thrills

“If you go down to the woods tonight, carry a big-ass gun” is the most cogent take-away from the tepid and confused new remake of Sam Peckinpah’s controversial classic, “Straw Dogs.”

James Marsden plays David Sumner, a successful Hollywood screenwriter, who moves cross-country with his wife Amy (Kate Bosworth), a TV actress returning to her father’s abandoned home in the backwoods of Mississippi.

He spends his days working on a screenplay about the siege of Stalingrad while she’s bored, jogging bra-less before a crew of local rednecks when she’s not petting her cat.

Among the crew is Charlie (Alexander Skarsgård), ex-quarterback of the revered local high school team. He and Amy had a thing back when she was head cheerleader, but these days he’s swinging a hammer, so Sumner hires Charlie and his buddies to repair the roof of their barn. Tension mounts between Harvard boy Sumner and the good ol’ boys of the bayou, gradually building toward a cataclysmic climax.

Affable as always, Marsden slips easily into the role of smart, hip and successful city dude. He awkwardly tries to speak to the level of the rednecks, but what he thinks is ingratiating comes off as covertly frightened. It’s a tough role, and its wide arc runs the gamut from inertia to kinesis, ending in rage and bloody violence.

Bosworth endures physical and emotional duress as local hero Amy, the town’s prodigal daughter returned. Skinny, blond and beautiful, she stands in stark contrast to the corpulent townsfolk so it’s no surprise that she lifts the spirits of the redneck crew — although it strains credulity, although angry with her husband, that she would flash her breasts at them.

James Woods delivers a grand performance as Coach, the paternal figure of the crew who once led Charlie to championships on the gridiron and now leads his former players to a horrifying showdown with Sumner. Woods strikes pretty much one note, yes, which he hammers for all it’s worth.

The standout here is Skarsgård as Charlie, who’s charismatic, smart, bold — and a psychopath. The “True Blood” star delivers a fascinating character study, exhibiting compelling leadership qualities mixed with repellent homicidal tendencies. It’s his sincerity, and not his powers of seduction, that wind up being his most dangerous weapon.

Former film critic Rod Lurie broke big with his second feature “The Contender” back in 2000 and followed strongly with “The Castle,” but has since been on a bit of a slide. Here, he exhibits an uneven hand, working deftly with the camera (collaborating once again with cinematographer Alik Sakharov, who shot Lurie’s 2008 “Nothing But the Truth”) but struggling with his actors. Marsden and Bosworth, most notably, never achieve enough chemistry to convince you they are husband and wife.

It’s not entirely their fault, as they are hamstrung by a critical change from the original 1971 film, where Dustin Hoffman played a mathematician working on a cutting-edge theory. His world is so far outside his wife’s that it impacts their relationship in a way that makes the film’s climax both organic and inevitable.

By making Sumner a screenwriter and his wife an actor, Lurie puts his characters professionally and psychically in the same world: she is more likely to understand his process rather than to feel excluded.

If you’ve seen the original “Straw Dogs,” you probably expect the remake to be awful. Shockingly, it comes off as an adequate potboiler, building in intensity mostly by banal means, but it offers occasional inspired moments, such as Skarsgård’s performance and especially the climactic windup, which packs a punch similar to its predecessor.

Unfortunately, most of the new film’s strengths are inherited from the original, while its weaknesses stem from the changes. “Straw Dogs” was not a film crying out to be remade, but they did anyway — and you know what they say about lying down with dogs.