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Rated 3.09 stars
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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Measure of a Man
by Frank Wilkins

What’s the measure of a man? The position he plays on the football team? How well he can hunt? The extreme to which he must be pushed before resorting to violence? While Rod Lurie’s Straw Dogs tackles the question head on and lays out a fairly convincing argument that the answer depends on one’s own circumstance, his film misfires just enough to keep it from becoming the perfect classic revival of Gordon Williams’ novel, The Siege of Trencher's Farm and a worthy modern-day companion of Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 big-screen adaptation. It's a good movie, but not a better one than the original film.

David Sumner (James Marsden) is the man having his manhood tested. He’s an ivy league educated Hollywood screenwriter who moves back to his wife Amy’s (Kate Bosworth) hometown to fix up the dilapidated house left by her recently passed father. His atheistic, artsy, laceless-shoe-wearing, screenplay-writing, fancy-refurbished-Jaguar-driving ways don’t go over too well with the locals. You see, Amy’s hometown is Blackwater, Mississippi (get it?), a sweltering small Southern town where hunting, fighting, drinking, and the performance of Friday night’s high school football game determines the fate of many of its inhabitants.

David is clearly a fish out of water in his newfound surroundings, so his attempts to fit in, while also trying to appease Amy’s small-town-girl-done-good celebrity, stretches the peace-loving writer to his limit. Amy’s former boyfriend Charlie (Alexander Skarsgård) seems intent on stoking his old passions with Amy, while also trying to exert a bit of male dominance over the much weaker David. As the seemingly good-natured teasing takes a few bad turns, the resulting tensions are slowly burning toward a final confrontation involving some of the sickest, meanest weapons you’ve even seen. In fact, No Country for Old Men's Anton Chigurh might meet his match were he to show up in Blackwater.

Straw Dogs is a violent movie. But unlike many of today’s trendy offerings that proudly sport -- like a badge of exploitative honor -- the ability to shock an audience, the violence in Straw Dogs is used to define its characters and to map the course of its narrative.

There’s a dark, sinister tone that permeates the story, beginning with the way David is treated upon his arrival in the redneck town. He immediately feels threatened by the townsfolk and by Amy’s amorous history with Charlie. The cracks in David's glass begin in an early scene at the local watering hole and then spider web throughout the rest of the film. We feel in our guts that things are beginning to spiral out of control -- and Lurie, working from his own script, lets the scenario burn to maximum effect in a satisfying violent climax.

However, Straw Dogs takes a few hits from problems involving the behavior and motivation behind many of its characters. In an attempt to set the story in a more approachable environment, Lurie changes the setting of his adaptation to the U.S. south. Williams’ novel was set in England, and so was Peckinpah’s film version. Lurie then paints his characters with an overly broad brush of generality, giving them an unintentionally funny, sit-com-like Southern good ol' boy personality. They drink only one kind of beer, Budweiser, and listen to only one kind of music, classic Southern rock.  Although it may be an admirable attempt to draw upon our familiarity of a culture where violence is a part of everyday life and where hunting, football and machismo rule the day, the stereotypes here are poured on so heavily that they never feel totally natural. Also, Amy’s behavior during a particularly disturbing rape scene never feels quite right, nor do the reasons behind the flashing of her breasts to Charlie and his co-contractors while they work on restoring the house. Amy seems to be tempting the guys to do something, but when that “something” happens, we’re never really sure if that’s what she wants. It’s just odd behavior, and we’re left wondering.

Marsden delivers a solid portrayal of a reluctant hero forced to use violence in order to defend his wife, his property and both of their lives. Bosworth is adequate as well in the role of a woman teetering on the edge between loving her husband and trying to reconcile some unresolved feelings. But it’s Skarsgård who rises to the top of the heap with his bad boy Charlie, a man who appears completely frightening and over the top, but who isn’t really that far from normal.

(Released by Screen Gems and rated "R" for brutal violence including a sexual attack, menace, some sexual content, and pervasive language.)

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