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New on Blu-ray: Straw Dogs

“I know how they feel.”

With its provocative depiction of latent, innate violence, a range of ambiguous motivations and uncertain responses, and its strained atmosphere of near constant conflict, Straw Dogs (1971) is in many ways the prototypical Sam Peckinpah film. The embattled director was a man plagued by disquieting inner demons and a penchant for self-destruction, and his films were often an outlet for fierce self-reflection, laid raw and bare for the world to see. In his work and on a personal level, Peckinpah writhed with an unsettling combination of reverence and repulsion, sympathy and shock, contradictory attitudes toward his own actions and those of the characters he emblazoned on screen. Often operating under the weight of debilitating and ultimately fatal substance abuse, he probed uncomfortable realms of human nature and assigned the viewer the role of equally uneasy observer. Among his essential incitements is the notion that mankind doesn’t just have an astounding capacity for violence (psychological and physical), but that mankind has an inborn love-hate relationship with it. This is what led him to continually explore the visceral aesthetics of hostility along with its universal ramifications. This is why it took a man like Sam Peckinpah to make a film like Straw Dogs.

In order to approach these unpleasant facets of individual behavior, Peckinpah’s principal characters were seldom traditional protagonists; in a conventional sense, heroes are hard to find. His roster of good-bad men and moral middle-grounders are engaging focal points of the narrative, managing to elicit genuine empathy in spite of their own best efforts. This isn’t done easily—you’ve got to put yourself in a pretty dark place (or have actually been there) to fully appreciate these thorny figures. Take Straw Dogs: Set against the seemingly idyllic Cornish countryside, there is never anyone to truly root for in the film, not in an idealistic fashion anyway. David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) is a nebbish American mathematician who exudes utter disdain for most everyone around him, including his wife, Amy (Susan George), an effortlessly beautiful coquet whose tantalizing sexuality is matched only by her suspect needling. Newly arrived in her old hometown, the two meet Charlie Venner (Del Henney), introduced as an old friend of Amy’s but obviously much more. At first, it seems the friction is of the jealous variety, but there is an undercurrent of something deeper, something not quite yet malicious simply because it’s so presently prevalent.

Looking back on what happens in Straw Dogs, it’s tempting to start assigning blame from the very beginning. Searching for instigation, one could first point to David. Some of the conflict that arises is a result of his obvious snobbery; he looks down on this rough-and-tumble English lot and makes no real effort to acclimate himself into their world. However, given the temperament of his newfound neighbors—an aggressive, crass, and boozy bunch—some of his reticence may indeed be well-founded. That’s why things are never so simple with Peckinpah. As seen in Straw Dogs, good and bad are everywhere, and at any tremulous moment, varied impulses are freely bottled up and stirred within any given character. Peckinpah does allow for a few moments of lightness between David and Amy, and even between he and the locals. In the case of the former, though, their teasing flirtatiousness is almost instantly soured by his awkward aversion to affection (especially in public, lest the warmth be misconstrued as weakness), and in the case of the latter, behind the cordial pleasantries is a brooding cultural acrimony. Whether it is David and Amy as they beat around the bush of their noticeably unsound marriage, or in the way David and the citizenry speak of concurrent Vietnam-era turmoil in America, whatever anyone says to somebody else in Straw Dogs, it comes across as a piercing, scarcely concealed threat.  

Hoffman turns David into an apathetic sapling, susceptible to intimidation and irritation; he goes from oblivious disregard to meek ineptitude. George’s Amy, meanwhile, flaunts her natural allure, doing so in such a way as to amble suspiciously between naïveté and knowing stimulation. As George herself has stated, the local hooligans may make eyes at Amy, but she is “not too fussy about it.” So much of the gestating tension hinges on Amy’s sexuality: David chastises her for going around without a bra; one of the men hired to work on their house steals her panties; and at a one point, she stops topless in front of a window, just long enough to give the workers on the roof a studied peek. Peckinpah’s treatment of women was sometimes questionable (in real life and in the movies), but few of his female characters are more complex and perplexing than Amy, and George does an exceptional job conveying this curiously cunning coyness. What is she up to? And as a couple, what exactly are she and David up to? Why all the jabs and insinuations? He’s neglectful and overly harsh; she’s juvenile and petty (sticking a piece of gum on his blessed blackboard is a nice touch). If this is how they were prior to the move, it makes what transpires afterward almost seem inevitable.

As the workmen hover around the Sumner house like a prowling band of cackling banshees, their menacing presence suggests predatory intent, though there is little David can do about it. Amy cuts his already diminished masculinity down to size by contending if he could hammer a nail, the threatening laborers wouldn’t be there to begin with. Content to mumble and complain, David’s stubborn inflexibility is bound to break, and when their cat is found hanging in their closet, it proves a pivotal turning point. And still there is more than an hour left in this increasingly nerve-wracking film. Yes, the cat business is an act of unnecessary cruelty (though David had earlier thrown fruit at the animal—one of many violent contradictions in the film), but as Amy says, it also shows the men could get into their bedroom, which they do both literally and figuratively.

Peckinpah didn’t care for Gordon Williams’ novel “The Siege of Trencher’s Farm,” upon which Straw Dogs was based (he supposedly said it was like “drowning in your own vomit”), so he and co-screenwriter David Zelag Goodman made several dramatic changes: lowering the age of David and Amy, adding her past in the village, and extending the accumulation of suspense. The most prominent addition was, of course, the film’s infamous rape sequence. In this extremely disturbing scene, Amy is first assaulted by Charlie, then another assailing native, Norman Scutt (Ken Hutchison). Charlie’s act is certainly horrific, but it’s also something else. There is resistance and, as has been debated since the film was released, there also appears to be pleasure. Watching this brutal molestation, one looks to George in order to gauge the severity of the attack and assess her state of mind (her performance is gut-wrenching), although that subjective reading proves perhaps misleading. Norman’s abhorrent actions, on the other hand, are decidedly straightforward and are therefore far worse. Yet that isn’t so easy to say either. Throughout Straw Dogs, as in much of Peckinpah’s best work, it is almost impossible to assign grades of badness.

As central and notorious as this scene is, the raging finale of Straw Dogs actually arises from sheer happenstance. Following a church outing (during which a montage of visual aftershocks advance the painful impact of Amy’s violation), it is an unavoidable accident that puts the wheels of this vicious evening into motion. The locals have had their own disputes aside from Amy and David, and one of their concerns is Henry Niles (David Warner), a lumbering simpleton who apparently has an unhealthy fondness for young girls. David hits Henry while driving and takes the injured man back to their house, offering him sanctuary from an encroaching mob. Despite Amy’s urging to let the crowd have the accused, David resists. Picking a strange and not entirely advantageous time to take a stand, he steadfastly declares, “This is my house … This is where I live. This is me. I will not allow violence against this house.” Under siege close-ups of Hoffman and George yield stricken faces of terrified panic and hysterical confusion. She recoils in the face of the madness while he acts on Neanderthal instinct. It’s an overwhelming climax.

Straw Dogs patently builds to this chaotic catharsis, but unlike the gory glory of The Wild Bunch’s epic conclusion, it’s never satisfying. The denouement here is meaningful but not rewarding. Writing in his Criterion Collection essay, “Straw Dogs: Home Like No Place,” Joshua Clover argues, “We are not invited to take pleasure in some triumphal climb into fascist dreams; Straw Dogs ends not in a utopia of power unshackled so much as in a swamp of the bloody and the bleeding.” Maybe there is no utopia for the audience, but David is another matter. In the film’s final shot, he smiles ever so slightly. He’s feeling something. However, such has been the emotional distance maintained by Peckinpah, that one is hardly inclined to share in his apparent accomplishment. As Clover notes, responding to one of the many misguided accusations leveled at Straw Dogs, “to name the movie misogynistic is to mistake the degree to which it is a movie that despises everyone, its viewers no less than its characters.” Further, contrary to what Mark Kermode contends in a making-of documentary included on the Criterion disc, Straw Dogs is not a “rape revenge” film (it’s never clear how much of Amy’s incident David is actually aware of), so Peckinpah doesn’t even afford us that sordid sense of satisfaction.

Though cuts were made to avoid an X rating, Straw Dogs was instantly controversial, and it remains an immensely divisive film. The amount of content provided by Criterion, along with the assorted insight, indicates just how much debate the film can still produce. It is a Rorschach test of potentially troubling revelations, mixed emotions, and sundry interpretations. Peckinpah himself regarded the picture from a number of different angles. In a contentious 1974 interview, he discusses the four aspects that led him to direct Straw Dogs: “man ignoring the violence within himself; the intellectual fleeing society and avoiding his responsibilities; the man who becomes violent when he realizes his wife has been raped and that he must defend what belongs to him; the sexual relations within the couple, with the wife being clearly unsatisfied in this regard.” Again discounting the debatable degree to which David is aware of Amy’s rape, this four-part approach nevertheless reveals the film’s multilayered depth.

For Straw Dogs, Peckinpah traded the Arizona desert of 1970’s The Ballad of Cable Hogue for rustic English pastoral. The imagery soaked up by cinematographer John Coquillon, who would later work with the director on Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973), Cross of Iron (1977), and The Osterman Weekend (1983), is sapped of most anything but the soggiest of earth tones. So, while it doesn’t have the tactile coarseness of his Westerns, certain recurrent themes persist. As he did with The Wild Bunch in 1969, Peckinpah opens Straw Dogs on an image of children playing. They are less sadistic in this film, but the implication is the same: this is where it all starts, this is the innocence that gets lost along the way as boys become men. In his routinely critical analysis of savage masculinity, Peckinpah sought sweeping truths about where such anger and aggression comes from, and how one crosses the line from reckless mischief to the more dangerous ground of pandemic brutality. Straw Dogs brings some of this back to twisted psychosexual mind games, but a lot of it also has to do with established norms of male conduct. Peckinpah was all about finding that accepted middle ground (so frequently idolized in classical Westerns), and from there testing the limits of tolerable violence. How far does a man have to go before he goes too far, and what becomes of him when that point is passed? Arguably more than any of Sam Peckinpah’s work before or after, the mirror Straw Dogs holds up to humanity doesn’t return a very pretty picture. It is, however, compelling, impassioned, and tragically prescient.

10/10

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