The short version is that it’s a properly modernized but heavily diluted version of the original that may cause people to miss the point entirely. In fact, you could even say that it’s been written in a way that makes it depressingly easy to miss the point.
But it takes some hefty explanation, so we’ll get to that in a moment.
First, a synopsis.
David Sumner (James Marsden) plays a Harvard-bred screenwriter who’s decided to find quiet refuge in his girlfriend Amy’s hometown (Kate Bosworth). As the hired crew of contractors led by Amy’s old high school flame, Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard) take turns subtly emasculating David and walking around like they own the place, David is left with the sole option of beating his chest and taking charge. The problem though, is that he exudes an air of politeness that would challenge even Kermit the Frog.
"Light Beer, please."
You see, the original portrayed David as a hard-nosed mathematician who underwent a terrifying change toward the end, instigated the violent climax, and sacrificed his humanity to assert his masculinity. You weren’t quite sure whether or not you were supposed to like him, and so it placed this revenge fantasy into an uncomfortable gray area. The whole thing made us think about how we view the action of dishing out lethal retribution, and left us with a story in which there were no real good guys. Even David’s wife was terrified of him by the end.
Rod Lurie is clearly going for this, but it might falter on account of two things:
THING NUMBER 1: James Marsden might be a bit too heroic.
THING NUMBER 2: We’re pretty much desensitized to violence by now.
Way back in 1971, the shocking conclusion to the film would nauseate even the most hardened moviegoers and critics. Now — since it’s not really anything out of the ordinary — we welcome it with satisfaction.
To an extent, David is pretty much a namby-pamby intellectual who’s getting his toes stepped on by the locals. While they’re working on his roof, they come and go as they please and raid his fridge regularly for on-the-job drinks. David still wants to be the man of the house, but he still feels that it’s in his best interest to try to gain their respect and be diplomatic about marking his territory.
Of course, the rednecks don’t listen.
They don’t take kindly to his atheism, lack of practical hunting knowledge and disinterest in football. They do things differently in Mississippi, but David still refuses to bow down to their level. They feel insulted by him because, well, he’s just totally passive-aggressive. He walks out during sermons and subtly insinuates that the movies he writes are too high-brow for these cro-magnons.
"Er, how do you work this damn thing again?"
So you could say he’s asking for it — he doesn’t like the rednecks, and they don’t like him, but it doesn’t hit as hard as it used to. It’s a hell of a lot easier to see him as a hero in this film than in the original. The ambiguity isn’t as pronounced this time around, and so it’s easy to miss. Instead, it just feels kind of preachy against the deep South.
But of course, whether or not David should be held in high esteem is made obvious by the shockingly violent final set piece, right?
Yeah, erm, no.
Why? Because violence just doesn’t have that sickening punch that it used to. Mixed Martial Arts, any horror movie based on shock value, Fox News — they’re all appealing because we’re a nation that thrives on seeing people getting all banged up. Hell, we suck it down by the goddamn barrel. “I’ll take a Big Mac — no onions — a side of fries, a Diet Coke, and some violence, please. Supersized.”
But that’s just how things are; violence is fantastic.
We’re not supposed to be hooting and hollering by the final climax, we’re supposed to be appalled by it. When audiences in 1971 had witnessed the original, they were freaked out of their minds — they had just never seen anything like it. It represented an intelligent man of passivity who has to make the descent into the territorial rage that he despises the most. In order to stand his ground, he had to become the thing he hates. It was fascinating, but only in a way that made people uncomfortable.
Nowadays, it’s the type of thing that makes Yosemite Sam dance around and shoot his pistols in the air. We see some dorky pretty-boy finally go nuts, and we clap and cheer and jerk each other off. We’re happy to see David finally make it out alive, but maybe he’s a bit too happy.
The original even had him slap his wife around at this point so that she’d quiet down and stop breaking his concentration — eventually, she cried out to the antagonists for help.
Do we get any of that nihilistic morality here? Nope. Just tasty violence that goes down smooth.
And so, without the shock and poignancy, what do you have left?
"Well, there's James Woods."
Indeed. Indeed there is. He’s a wonderful man of exuberance, but he’s not exactly worth the price of admission.
And so, it’s all up to you now, gentle reader. If you want to see a mild-mannered screenwriter flip out and kill people, then you’ll probably be entertained, but you’ll be in for a lot of forced tension. Yeah, it’s cool to see some glorious nerd-vengeance, but some might feel that it’s too little, too late. If you like your revenge fantasies deconstructed, then just watch the original.
Yell! Rating (x/5 Skulls):
16 September 2011
James Marsden, Kate Bosworth, James Woods, Dominic Purcell, Rhys Coiro, Billy Lush, Laz Alonso, Willa Holland, Walton Goggins, Anson Mount, and Alexander Skarsgård