Straw Dogs (1971)

Directed by Sam Peckinpah

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When I finally got the DVD for Straw Dogs, it came with a large watermark that said, in all caps, “BANNED IN THE UK.”  This is a violent movie that is likely only this well-known over 40 years later because of that violence, as the marketing reflects.  The film is about two hours long but moves at a slow pace before it explodes in the final 20 to 30 minutes.  All you really need to see is in the second half of the film, but it is genuinely disturbing and hard to watch.  So Sam Peckinpah (aka Bloody Sam) did a good job, I suppose.  He made a violent spectacle that is so violent it’s hard to bear.

Straw Dogs isn’t a universally loved film, from what I can tell.  It’s not even looked upon with much reverence other than for the shock factor, something other movies have been able to accomplish while still aging with grace.  The Producers or Deliverance are such examples, but for very different reasons.

When I looked for older reviews of this film, I was surprised by how lukewarm they were.  The reviewer, like Roger Ebert or the New York Times, address the shock factor but are then able to look past it and analyze the film as just that, a film.  Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch is supremely violent and considered a classic.  The hang ups some might have for Straw Dogs is not what pushed these critics away from this one.  The Times review notes that, “His philosophy somehow belongs out West, either in the great spaces inhabited by Cable Hogue, or in those areas where the frontier is slowly being corrupted by civilization.”

Straw Dogs becomes a story about a man defending his home from ruthless vigilantes.  The threat of violence is ominously clear from the start and it creates a feeling that this world is full of such violence.  It’s something you expect from a western, where frontiersmen anticipate a certain amount of danger and self-preservation, and this is something Peckinpah explore in The Wild Bunch.

But here it’s something different.  Straw Dogs was set in the same time period in which it was released.  It follows an American intellectual journeying to the English countryside with his English wife.  The American is immediately a fish out of water, and he is made to feel intimidated simply by being an outsider.  The men who prove to be as villainous as they’re made to seem from the start are locals who work for the American and who have a previous connection to his wife.  They push around the outsider before the inevitable violence explodes.

The story mostly plays with differing types of masculinity.  Maybe this is a brilliant work commenting on the role of women in contemporary society by framing this Western-esque story in the modern day.  The British countryside is far enough away from our own world (at least for Americans) so as to make it seem like it takes place in another time period entirely.

There are two women in this movie.  One of them is raped, and the other is strangled.  In both cases they take part in their own assault.  The victim of sexual assault is made to become complicit in the act and the woman who is strangled tries to seduce the man who kills her.  Perhaps this is looking too far into it, but it’s something other critics have noted.  The female characters in this film are underwritten and really only serve to highlight a flaw or characteristic in the male characters.

The American is David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman), a mathematician who mostly ignores his wife, Amy (Susan George).  They have marital problems from the start which only get worse as the story goes on, even aside from the more obvious, external threat that builds throughout the movie.  In this way, Straw Dogs is like the beginning of Kramer Vs. Kramer mixed with Deliverance and a dose of the end of Home Alone, just with more blood.

 

David and Amy hire a group of locals to work on building their garage.  One of these men is Charlie, an old boyfriend of Amy’s who still lusts after her.  Another is Norman, who has his eyes set on Amy all the same.

Amy and David occasionally venture into town where everyone seems to gather at the pub, acting as the town center or Central Perk as in Friends, if you will.  There we meet an older man with a young daughter, Janice, as well as a mentally challenged man, John Niles.

One day the group of locals takes David out to go quail hunting and then promptly abandons him.  Charlie goes to see Amy and rapes her.  Then Norman does the same.  It’s the most difficult to watch part of the film.  When David returns home she remains silent, and he is oblivious to any sign of trauma.

Later they will go into town where, unrelated, Janice attempts to seduce Niles, but when there is  commotion, Niles incidentally strangles her before wandering out into the street where he is hit by David’s car.  David and Amy take him home to care for him while they get help.  The town locals join a manhunt alongside Janice’s father for Niles.  They track him down to David’s home, and what follows is a lengthy battle to get inside his fortified home.

David is mostly powerless throughout the film.  He can’t stand up for himself, but he also proves to be pretty pathetic regardless of the intimidation by the locals.  We root for David because what he’s up against is so horrifying and grotesque.  The enemy is made so villainous that we must root for the hero, even though the hero is a small man.

David never treats his wife well (I guess neither treats the other well), and as tensions escalate, he even strikes her later in the film.  Dustin Hoffman, at least here and in The Graduate, is able to effectively play these complex, often disturbed characters.  In this case he hides behind his chalk board and glasses, his insecurities and flawed masculinity hiding under layers of argyle sweaters.

Straw Dogs is so disturbing not just because it’s horribly violent but because these characters are more or less all awful people.  To give them the benefit of the doubt is to say they are complex or just working through something, but no one in this film is fun to be around.  And maybe “fun” is too much to ask for, but this is a story that on the surface calls for us to like the central married couple.  The group of friends in Deliverance are up against a similarly mysterious, disturbing antagonistic force, but we’re meant to like the main characters, at least from what I recall.

And no, Amy and David (Amy in particular) in no way deserve what happens to them, but they’re still unlikeable characters who, other than a few moments of levity, are frightening to be around and who can barely tolerate each other.  The only other characters we spend much time with are the local thugs who are broad caricatures from the start.  They are nothing but forces of evil.

The end of the movie is a little fun, I suppose, only because the people who get hurt are the ones we know deserve it.  These are the local thugs who are all mowed down by David’s sudden ingenuity and strange confidence.  He and Peckinpah are allowed to get away with this gratuitous violence because the people who suffer it need it.  These kinds of evil don’t just go away, is what the message might be, but more importantly it works on an emotional level.  I wanted to see Charlie, Norman and the other sociopaths get what they had coming.  They remain the same villains as before, and compared to them David becomes the everyman underdog hero.  He certainly looks the part.

This entire movie is about the third act.  Everything else feels reverse engineered to create a situation in which the action might unfold as it does.  So if this were the case, the story would be constructed in such a way to give us the underdog hero versus the outlandish villainy.  And yet, this underdog hero is anything but.  He’s selfish, insecure, violent, etc.  His fight to defend his home actively tortures his wife who pleads for him to give the thugs Niles, the man they want.  Were he to do that, then all of this would be over.  David’s reason for keeping Niles feels more born out of pride than of caring for the man’s fate.  Later we will see Niles lunge at Amy and nearly kill her twice.  David is our hero, but he puts his wife in a precarious position on multiple occasions.

With The Wild Bunch Peckinpah created a western that deconstructed the myth of life on the frontier.  We followed characters who committed crazy amounts of violence and who weren’t even the heroes.  He took a familiar genre and took it apart, and maybe he’s doing something similar here but for the concept of masculinity.

The kind of crazy violence at the end of Straw Dogs is wholly unnecessary, and I guess that just might be the point.  It’s unnecessary for any movie to be this violent, depending on your point of view, but it’s definitely unnecessary for David to put him and Amy in this position.  It’s important that he is given a way out but doesn’t take it.  The thing that compels the thugs to try and beat up, maybe kill Niles is the same thing that compels David to refuse to give in.

Up Next: Out of Sight (1988), The Philadelphia Story (1940), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

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