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The dog still bites; Rod Lurie's remake of 'Straw Dogs' is a softer version, but is still able to inflame and outrage 40 years later

"Straw Dogs" is the masterpiece of Sam Peckinpah, one of the most controversial filmmakers America ever had.

Which makes Rod Lurie's current remake of "Straw Dogs" the finest entirely gratuitous remake of a film masterwork I've ever seen.

Remaking film masterpieces, after all, isn't one of the smartest things our species does. When a director as gifted and accomplished as Jonathan Demme announced that he'd do a remake of John Frankenheimer's utterly inimitable "The Manchurian Candidate," it was almost as stupid an idea as a remake of "Citizen Kane" or "Bringing Up Baby" would have been. That the film wasn't an unwatchable trainwreck was a tribute to Demme's talent and nothing else.

It was still an utterly pointless film.

Lurie's film is almost shockingly good, considering how lamentably misbegotten the basic notion was.

Lurie takes the mean, snarling, satanic edge off of Peckinpah's film whenever possible. Peckinpah's film rubbed the audience's faces into its deepest sources of unease -- its toyings with Robert Ardrey's ideas of universal "territorial imperative," its postulation of a nasty, beer-sloshed pushback against emerging feminism, and, most of all, its embodiment of the social class hostility "liberated" by the Vietnam era, when America's exempt and protesting educated class and its working class draftees found it increasingly necessary to manifest open -- and tragic -- mutual contempt.

Town and gown thought they were at war in 1972 when I reviewed the original "Straw Dogs." And then along came Peckinpah with his movie about a Jaguar-driving mathematics professor on England's Cornish coast arriving with his brazen, sexy new wife at her ancestral home and hiring her old boyfriend and his thug buddies to fix up the house.

His wife soon taunts her husband for his inability to take a stand. What kind of "man" is he?, the audience is forced to ask. It was a classic Vietnam-era question.

Peckinpah rubs the audience's nose into the question. We watch an intellectual, at the end, use all of his powers to kill.

Many in the original audience hated it -- especially the rape scene, probably the most memorable and horrifying in the history of American movies.

In every way, Lurie has blunted the edges of "Straw Dogs" without, in any way, smothering any of its inner furies.

"Straw Dogs" still smolders. And, ultimately, burns.

"It's terrible," a woman went out of her way to tell me as we left the theater after seeing Lurie's remake. Her husband didn't seem quite as angry, but, even recalibrated by Lurie for 2011, that rape scene is not something women are likely to find easy to watch.

But that is part of what makes even this new version so disturbing. Peckinpah's original film really got to people in a way few other films have.

So, in a lesser way, may this one.

The original was Peckinpah's most aggressive announcement that he was going to give you his drunken tavern version of things normally glossed over in teas and cocktail parties. His is a world of sweat and onions and beer fumes, not cabernets, brie and cucumber sandwiches.

In that rape scene, the woman's former boyfriend is responding to her blatant and outrageous provocation -- slowly undressing in a bedroom window while looking right at him and his coarse, randy buddies as they hammer a new roof onto the adjoining garage.

Did that provocation mean she "deserved" to be raped -- and subsequently sodomized by one of his buddies? Did it mean that she'd end her resistance and accept the rape as an act of confused, wayward love -- only to have its brutality reinforced by her old boyfriend's buddy?

Of course not.

But this is not a tale told by a moralist. It's a tale told by an angry provocateur who's laughing at us.

Lurie softens this, but the scene is still able to inflame and outrage 40 years later. Even worse, the remake is just as blatantly and unmistakably misogynistic.

There are only two women with meaningful dialogue in the film and both are sexually provocative in the face of certain danger.

The way the beautiful "hot" wife (Kate Bosworth), a former TV actress in Lurie's version, gets back at her disappointing and decidedly anti-macho husband (he's even scared of cats) is to arouse the boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgard) who satisfied and then disappointed her so long ago.

She's a bit of a horror, this beautiful young woman -- an older version of the small-town teenage flirt who takes revenge on her vile, violent father (James Woods) by coming on to his favorite punching bag, a mentally challenged young man who'd been caught before with a young girl doing sexual things he didn't begin to understand.

Women, in this world, are "territory," sexual territory or family territory but still territory. Plain and simple. The content of their heads is infantile, at best. You're watching the drunken idea of a female "rape fantasy" -- in other words, an extremely stupid and uncomprehending misunderstanding.

That's what gets to everybody, in different ways.

"A fascist masterpiece," Pauline Kael called Peckinpah's original. "A little beast who wants to be made submissive," is how she described the original wife (played by Susan George).

Peckinpah's rape scene, wrote Vincent Canby in the New York Times in January 1972 "will not, I imagine, endear the director to something over half this country's population." (Its first cousin is a scene in Peckinpah's "The Getaway" from the same year, in which kidnapper Al Lettieri has sex with willing Sally Struthers while Edward Herrmann, as her overcivilized husband, watches bound and gagged.)

Can a movie be "a fascist masterpiece?" A work of art of monumental power at the service of wholly repellent ideas?

Of course.

It's part of the essential aesthetics of movies. D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation" is a towering work of art extolling the heroism of the Ku Klux Klan. "Gone With the Wind" is one of the essential American masterworks, despite its grotesque and now profoundly nauseating portrait of slavery and the supposed "gentility" of the antebellum South.

That's the broad category of "necessary poison" that Peckinpah's "Straw Dogs" is in.

Lurie's softenings, then, don't begin to remove the movie's sharp teeth. This animal still bites.

The setting now is the sweltering American South, so Lurie can find a comfortable context for men going shirtless, and women going braless without 1972's "political statement." It also gives him a chance to cast nasty aspersions on football as a small-town obsession.

It lessens entirely the foreign "fish out of water" element of Peckinpah's rich American intellectual. Lurie's hero is a screenwriter, played by James Marsden, a good actor but very much a hunk, completely unlike Peckinpah's Dustin Hoffman, the shlubbiest and also most identifiably Jewish movie star this side of Barbra Streisand (an extra element of tension in the original).

But even wrenched out of its '70s context, Peckinpah's essential class struggle and machismo still apply. We still tend to equate masculinity with guns and carpenter's tools and weakness with privilege and intellectualism. The triumph of brains in "Straw Dogs" is to use them for the most primitive, even stupidest, ends. And yet, in a horrifying way, it remains a hugely persuasive cinematic triumph.

To me, the great Peckinpah films, in order, are: "Straw Dogs," its sweet sentimental opposite "The Ballad of Cable Hogue," "Ride the High Country" and "The Wild Bunch."

Lurie's film doesn't begin to belong in the same breath with any of those but in the realm of foolish, needless remakes, he understood how Peckinpah's story remains as cogent and unsettling as ever and gave it back to us in an acceptable 2011 way.

There will, assuredly, be no peaceful and bored car rides home from the theater after seeing it. Ideas don't lose their ability to arouse even though no one believes in them anymore.

"Straw Dogs" is especially disturbing to those who wish that, 40 years later, its power has dissipated entirely.

It hasn't.

email: jsimon@buffnews.com

***

Straw Dogs

3 1/2 stars (out of 4)

James Marsden, Kate Bosworth, Alexander Skarsgard and James Woods in Rod Lurie's remake of Sam Peckinpah's hugely controversial 1971 film about sex, manhood, territory and social class.

Rated R, now playing.

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