Straw Dogs review by The Grim Ringler

In his long and varied career director Sam Peckinpah was known to tackle some pretty weighty issues but none was closer to his heart nor more important to his films than violence. In the films of Peckinpah violence is a great, dark force Man is always trying to overcome but which we never seem to be able to contain or control, and in the end, it seemed that it was violence that was left standing when the dust cleared. Many have said that this was due to his attraction to violence; their proof being that his films are so bloody and grim, but I would wager that it wasnt that Peckinpah was attracted to the violence as much as he was repelled by it. Man is the only animal that truly has the choice to kill or spare, to evolve or devolve and I think that Mr. Peckinpah saw that and felt it was, more than anything else, the most important issue to cover in his films. You can especially see this in the supplementary material included in this fine two-disc set which show how frustrated the director was when two well regarded film critics didnt get his very controversial film Straw Dogs. Its easy to watch SD and to get caught up in one very dark and harrowing sequence in which the lead actress is raped but seems to enjoy it, but if you watch the film closely you will see that this isnt the scariest or most controversial scene in the film at all. That scene would be when the lead character, David (played brilliantly by a young Dustin Hoffman), becomes what he hates in order to survive because that is the dark secret Peckinpah has been whispering for years. Man cannot escape his innate violence.

The story begins with David, a brilliant American mathematician, and his beautiful young wife Amy (Susan George who is equally good here in a much more demanding role) arriving in a small British (Cornish to be correct and copy from the box) village which Amy had stayed at as a child. David is working off of a research grant and needs the time and quiet to work on his research and he secretly wants to be away from the racial and war strife and anger raging in America. Amy isnt quite as pleased to be back on her old stomping grounds though, the memory and figure of an ex lover still in the small village, as well as the isolated, small town mindset which had existed before as well. And Amy, a striking woman enjoying the sexual revolution to its fullest a she creates a stir when she arrives sans bra, is the kind of woman that makes women, and men, nervous. What was intended to be a quiet and romantic trip away from home so David could work soon changes though when the local men he has hired to fix a garage badly in need of repair begin peeping on his wife and spend more time getting drunk than they do working. And as this is happening the tension between David and Amy is growing, the gulf between them getting greater by the day as Amy begins to feel more and more isolated from David and emotionally abandoned while David feels that his wife doesnt respect the work he is trying to do. The greatest divide between them comes when Amys pet cat is found by David hanging dead in the closet, obviously killed by one of the workmen, and when he cannot summon the courage to confront them on this Amy is enraged, thinking her husband no more than a coward. Instead of ferreting out the culprit, the murderer, he has agreed to go hunting with the men the next day, telling Amy hell surprise them with the question. When David is off though Amys ex-lover, who was also on the hunt and working on the house, returns to her in the guise of romance, but, in a scene that damned this film in many peoples minds, this romance quickly turns to violence and the ambiguity which results has challenged filmgoers for years. On the hunt, while his wife is being brutally raped, David realizes he has been stranded out on the moors and, after many hours, makes his way home. He fires the men the next day but something has changed between he and Amy, and there is not a gulf between them there is an abyss. The true test for David, a man who abandoned his home country in fear of the emotional and revolutionary turmoil there, is yet to come though when he protects a suspected child molester from the wrathful hands of the men who had worked oh his home and the father of a young girl who has come up missing. And as the men, drunk and enraged and willing to kill to retrieve this man they are searching for, besiege the Sumners home and begin waging war on the young couple within, David must overcome his fear, overcome his restraint, and be willing to kill to protect his wife, his home, and the life of this man. And in essence, must become a monster like the men outside.

A director drawn to violence, this is probably Peckinpahs darkest and most controversial film, and mainly for once scene the rape scene. The scene begins with Amy finding her ex-lover at the door and telling him to leave, but as he persists she allows him in. The man takes this as an invitation for more and when he tries to force himself on Amy she rebuffs him. This man though has long since tired of Amy and her teasing though (we would intuit here that she was a tease when she was a young girl and that was how she hooked up with the lout in the first place) and he forces himself on her. Peckinpah makes this already graphic and wrenching scene all the harder to watch by making the audience complicit in it, using first person view-points of both victim and attacker, and pushing the camera in as close as it will go so it feels as if we are in the middle of the violence. The controversy stems from the fact that during the rape Amy stops fighting the man and slowly begins to enjoy it, an idea that is understandably vile and without defense if taken out of context. What Peckinpah is showing though is that Amy, so lost and alone and at that moment so hateful of her husband, that shes willing to take any comfort, even that of a rapist. And the man, the rapist, does love her, in a sick way, and becomes tenderer as she allows him to continue. This is not a scene to be taken free of the context of the film and analyzed; it is a scene to be viewed in the entirety, which then shows how very dark Amys heart has become. A woman who feels intellectually and emotionally inferior to her husband and who seems to want more of a man who will take care of her and will be the traditionally strong and silent type, she prefers violent love to the cold, distant love of her husband. Perhaps because its something, or perhaps because its passionate. But just as she is going through this David himself is changing. Alone and on the hunt David kills a bird, using a gun for the first time in his life, and part of him is also lost. An innocent part that he had retained to the detriment of his marriage and his life. He is a coward, a man afraid to trust his country, and a man who feels deep down that he has no right being with the beautiful woman that is his wife. He is walled in by fear. Amys horror is yet to come though as another of the men has followed her attacker and now he too wants Amy, and again Amy sees that what she wants isnt right and she is betrayed by her ex-lover as he holds her down while the other man has his way with her. This is a very hard sequence to watch, even for me, who has seen this three times at least not, its not a good sequence. But thats the point. Peckinpah isnt interested in making violence palatable. He doesnt care if you squirm. He wants you to because it means that it sickens you. Good. Just as he is willing to make the protagonists bastards, he too is willing to show you things you wish he would not, forcing you to think, to judge, to face violence and ask yourself what it is and what we are.

As much about the death of a marriage as it is of innocence, one of the things Straw Dogs is saying is that while to worship at the altar of violence may be wrong, to cower in fear of it is just as wrong. This is not a film of black and white but gray. The man David is protecting is a bad man, and perhaps does deserve to be punished, not killed, but punished for what he has done. So how many of us would risk our homes, and our lives and the life of our partner to stand up for what we believe? David is a coward, yes, until it counts the most. While Amy is not a villain by any stretch in this film, she is more of a coward than even she imagines, as she is willing to give away all she may believe in to be safe again.

The acting in this film is superb, both George and Hoffman standing their ground against one another and neither giving up an inch. Their roles are the pivot points for the rest of the film, and if they fail, if they make the Sumners too cowardly, or too childish, or even too loving, then the film is not as gripping or as interesting. The heart of the film is their relationship and the fragility of it. And as usual Peckinpah knows what he likes and it works. The violence here is very hard to stomach, and the ending is relentless, but this is the textbook example of violent images put to good use. This is not exploitation; this is a very grim look at reality and war, personal war, and what it means to stand for what you believe in. We may turn from this and films like it, but remember, it wasnt long ago in America that people had to be willing to die for personal rights and beliefs. This is not so old a notion. The worst two things I can say about the film are that its slow and this is deliberate, as this isnt an action picture, its a dramatic thriller. And that the violence, especially the rape scene, is very, very hard to watch, but again, this was intentional. This sort of a scene should be awful to see and make you sick. Otherwise it is glorification, not damnation.

The two-disc set from Criterion is as beautiful as any they have released. The film looks immaculate and is a joy to see. And, as if you couldnt tell, this is the uncut print of the film, a film that had several minutes shorn when it was released in America. The supplements include a very good feature length documentary on Peckinpah titled Sam Peckinpah: Man of Iron which has interviews with people the director had worked with and who give an idea of the man behind the films. Also on the disc is a short documentary about Dustin Hoffman on the location of the set, behind the scenes footage, an interview with the films producer and lead actress George, trailers, and two hilarious letters Peckinpah had sent two well regarded movie critics in regards to their reviews of the film.

This is not an easy film to watch, but its one that should be watched. In its own way it is an American classic and deserves to finally start getting more of that recognition.


9 out of 10 Jackasses
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