After her father passes away, actress Amy Sumner (Kate Bosworth) and her screenwriter husband David (James Marsden) decide to relocate to her hometown of Blackwater, Mississippi and move into her father’s home. Amy intends to fix the place up, while David hopes to get some work done on his next project. Amy hasn’t been back home since her acting career took off, and the locals all remember her fondly – especially high school sweetheart Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard), who has just been hired by the Sumners to do some repairs on the roof.
It doesn’t take long for this plan to go south in a hurry. The crew’s propensity for walking into the house and helping themselves to beer without being invited, as well as knocking off before noon to go hunting, doesn’t sit well with David, and Amy notices the lecherous stares directed at her by Charlie and his men as she goes out for her daily jog. When she expresses her concerns to David and demands that he take charge, he suggests that she dress more modestly, infuriating Amy and prompting her to use her exquisite figure to blatantly taunt the roofing crew.
David’s pacifism does not go unnoticed by Charlie, as he and the boys continue to cross lines and ignore boundaries. Charlie is convinced that Amy is still in love with him, and he throws it in David’s face: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, but what if they neighbor’s wife covets YOU?” After a chilling confrontation between Amy and Charlie, and a hunting expedition that leaves David stranded in the woods, the film shifts into high gear, accelerating toward a final encounter that is shocking in its brutality.
Director Rod Lurie (who also adapted the screenplay from the original) does a fine job of gradually building tension between the Sumners and the locals, as well as between David and Amy themselves. The movie starts off on a slow boil, every scene dripping with more menace than the last, and the edge-of-your-seat finale showcases tremendous performances from Bosworth and Marsden, as the Sumners are pushed so far into a corner that they are forced to fight back with every fiber of their being.
My biggest issue with Straw Dogs was the portrayal of life in the South. Blackwater is a town where every vehicle comes equipped with a hunting rifle, the local bar only accepts cash and doesn’t serve anything but Budweiser, and you’re considered an outcast if you don’t go to the high school football game on Friday night. These stereotypes do absolutely nothing to service the narrative, and the film wouldn’t have suffered a bit by toning them down considerably. Also worth mentioning is Skarsgard – while he’s sufficiently creepy as Charlie, his attempt at a Southern accent is all over the place. Next time, get a dialect coach.
Grievances aside, Straw Dogs is a well-paced, enjoyable thriller with a bit more subtlety and nuance than most. The principle cast brings the house down, and the conclusion will stick with you long after the credits roll.