Alexander Skarsgaard in the movie "Straw Dogs." (Steve Dietl, Screen Gems )
In one of her most famous reviews, Pauline Kael described Sam Peckinpah's "Straw Dogs" as "the first American film that is a fascist work of art." Released in 1971, the movie follows an American mathematician, David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman), and his wife, Amy (Susan George), who become the subject of an escalating series of attacks by a gang of locals; its graphic depiction of rape and murder crystallized the filmmaker's worldview that humans are instinctively attuned to violence.
No one is more aware of the film's complicated legacy than Rod Lurie. The writer-director is set to release his new version of "Straw Dogs" on Friday, with James Marsden replacing Hoffman as Sumner, Kate Bosworth as Amy and "True Blood" star Alexander Skarsgard as Charlie, the ringleader of the band of thugs. It's a seemingly odd choice for a filmmaker who considers himself a feminist and is best known for politically minded, female-centric films and TV shows such as 2000's "The Contender" and 2005's "Commander in Chief," which cast Geena Davis as the country's first female president.
He understands the sentiment his remake stirred up among fans of the man known as "Bloody Sam."
"When the movie was first announced three or four years ago, the blogosphere went bananas," said Lurie, sitting down for an interview in his Hollywood office, a bound collection of Kael's New Yorker reviews sitting noticeably on the book shelf behind him. "People were attacking me, saying I don't know Peckinpah, I'm no Peckinpah, the film can't possibly be good, why would they want to sully a perfect classic and finally what's the need for it.
"The thing is," Lurie said, "there's no need to make any movie. There's no need to make a 'Harry Potter' film, there's no need to make 'Bridesmaids,' there's no need to make a James Bond film. But there is a purpose. I had a purpose. My purpose was to tell a really exciting story but from a point of view completely different from the one that had been presented 40 years ago."
Lurie maintains that remakes have essentially become their own genre by now, and with the success of the Coen brothers' update of "True Grit" last year and planned reinventions of "All Quiet on the Western Front" and "A Star is Born" (the latter of which has been remade twice previously), there seems to be little reticence in Hollywood about preserving the perceived artistic sanctity of so-called classics.
Adapted from Gordon Williams' novel, "The Siege of Trencher's Farm," "Straw Dogs" is arguably Peckinpah's second signature feature after "The Wild Bunch," the 1969 western that established him as a master of intense, blood-spattered cinema. In the film, squabbling couple David and Amy arrive in the rural town of Cornwall and almost instantly run afoul of the members of the tight-knit community where Amy was raised. David's pacifism marks him as an outsider; he's perceived as an effete intellectual whose atheism and liberal views directly conflict with the insular English pub culture, as embodied by Amy's leering ex, Charlie Venner (Del Henney).
When David invites Charlie to help repair the roof of the barn on Amy's father's secluded estate, he unknowingly invites the conflict into his home. Before the story's conclusion, Amy has been raped by Charlie and one of his cronies and David has abandoned his convictions, demonstrating that he is willing to kill to defend his property (including his wife). It was that conclusion that drove Kael to her scathing judgment — Sumner's actions are a direct representation of fascist ideals such as the promulgation of violence as a means to renew the vitality of the human spirit.
Opening the same year as "A Clockwork Orange" and "Dirty Harry," "Straw Dogs" spoke to a new brutality in film, an artistic response to the social turbulence and cultural upheaval of the late 1960s and early '70s. Harold Pinter, in a letter to Peckinpah dated Dec. 9, 1970, decried the director's "Straw Dogs" screenplay as "obscene not only in its unequivocal delight in rape and violence but in its absolute lack of connection with anything that is recognizable or true in human beings and in its pathetic assumption that it is saying something 'important' about human beings."
Lurie has a copy of that letter in his desk. It was ultimately what convinced the 49-year-old former film critic to undertake the project, which was first suggested to him by his producing partner Marc Frydman. Lurie maintains that Peckinpah's film spoke to his conviction that humans harbored within them a limitless capacity for savagery — a philosophy in part inspired by the writings of Robert Ardrey ("African Genesis" and "The Territorial Imperative").