MGM // 1971 // 118 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // September 8th, 2011
The knock at the door meant the birth of one man and the death of seven others!
"Okay, you've had your fun. I'll give you one more chance, and if you don't clear out, there'll be real trouble. I mean it."
Mathematician David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman, Rain Man) and his wife Amy (Susan George, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry) have just moved to a new home in rural England (Amy's home town, in fact). Amy has recently grown suspicious about the construction workers putting the finishing touches on their home, as their typically crude behavior recently seems to have elevated into nastier pranks. David initially attempts to resist confrontation with the men, but soon finds himself facing the threat of extreme violence. Will David work up the nerve to take on these brutish locals?
Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs is undoubtedly one of the most misinterpreted films ever made. I don't say this because the general consensus does not match my own thoughts on the film, but simply because there are so many conflicting theories on what Peckinpah was trying to say that basic math suggests the majority of them must be wrong. It's as much an exercise in ambiguity as it is anything else; director Rod Lurie (who helmed the 2011 remake of the film) calls it a "Rorschach test" that draws a different reaction from each person who sees it.
As such, it's difficult to find a theory about the film that can't be matched by a similarly compelling rebuttal. It's entirely understandable that some consider the film an ugly exercise in misogyny and that others regard it as digging into thoughtfully groundbreaking territory in its depiction of women on the big screen. Peckinpah claimed that Straw Dogs is about the way men treat women, while star Dustin Hoffman claimed that the film was an examination of "the lie of liberalism." Some see David as a repulsive coward who eventually attains dignity, while others see him as a good man who ultimately succumbs to unfortunate impulses. The commentary on the previous Criterion DVD made a case for the notion that David, not the savage rapists/murderers attempting to break into his home, was the true villain of the film.
Regardless of what Straw Dogs is, it undeniably leaves an impression that's hard to shake. Peckinpah delivers a strangely fractured revenge thriller which seems an ancestor to Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers; a film which condemns our violent impulses even as it revels in them. At the heart of the film is the dark notion that all men have primitive, violent urges at their core, no matter how much we try to suppress or ignore them. This is examined most explicitly in the character of David (played in an admirably understated manner by Hoffman), the timid, worldly mathematician who eventually works himself into an archaic, patriarchal fury: "I will not have violence against this house," he declares in a moment that seems more The Virgin Spring than Death Wish.
It sounds like a typical bit of Hollywood chest-thumping, but part of what makes Straw Dogs so complex and challenging is that David isn't really backed into a corner he's forced to fight his way out of. Rather, he seems to embrace the idea of a conflict, and chooses to view an optional fight as an entirely necessary one as a way of justifying the savagery he will unleash. Peckinpah cleverly hints at the violence in David's soul early in the film in a variety of small ways: he purchases a giant bear trap to place over his mantle, he cruelly throws pieces of fruit at his cat, he's frequently very cold towards his wife, he epitomizes the Ugly American when he visits a local bar and he seems to get off on antagonizing a local minister. David is cowardly, but he isn't exactly an ideal human being before he transforms into a murderous alpha male. There is the distinct (though uncertain) possibility that David has brought all of his miseries upon himself.
For that matter, the women of the film also seem to bring miseries upon themselves. A young girl sexually teases a local man (an uncredited David Warner, Time Bandits) with well-known mental problems and then finds herself facing serious consequences. In the most famous scene of the film, Amy is raped by one of the construction workers, but seems to flip back and forth between protesting and demonstrating her enjoyment (Susan George's depiction of her complicated emotional journey during this scene is the acting highlight of the film). That the rape comes after some brief scenes in which Amy seems to suggest to the construction worker that she's available is particularly troubling; a variation on the "she wanted it, your honor" argument which has been used by so many rapists. It's a scene which has been analyzed and debated to death, but it's very much in line with the horrific notion running through the whole film: deep down, we have a need to engage in animalistic behavior (indeed, the rape feels distinctly like the kind of queasy, disconcerting thing one would see in a nature documentary).
Straw Dogs is one of Peckinpah's stronger efforts on a technical level, despite the fact that the director was struggling with alcoholism throughout the entire shoot. The film has a very distinctive sense of place, and Peckinpah effectively establishes a sense of insulated menace in the little English town. The film takes its time to build up steam, but maintains a relentless pace once it gets going. Peckinpah's staging of the lengthy, violent climax continues his exploration of contradiction and ambiguity, as the action is shot in a superficially thrilling manner even as the raw bloodlust on display rubs our noses in the fact that we're getting off on something very ugly (thus making us as guilty as David, I suppose). While I'm generally bothered by such self-righteous cinematic sermons (Michael Haneke's well-crafted but exasperatingly smug Funny Games comes to mind), Straw Dogs seems Peckinpah's frustrated admission of guilt as much as anything else. To put it simply: we're all awful, but he's right in there with us.
Straw Dogs arrives on Blu-ray sporting a decent enough 1080p/1.85:1 transfer. The image is clean and offers sturdy detail despite a typically heavy level of grain (this looks very much like a typical '70s picture, for better or worse). The muted palette serves the film nicely and accentuates the rather drab, foreboding nature of the film's location. Black levels are satisfyingly deep and shadow delineation is sturdy during the visually dark final third of the film. This release also grants Straw Dogs its first 5.1 surround mix, but honestly there's not a whole lot of difference between this and the original mono track. It's clean and clear, but very front-heavy much of the time. Only during a few score selections (an appropriately uncertain effort from Peckinpah regular Jerry Fielding) actually provide a noticeable surround experience. It's a decent track, but don't expect anything mind-blowing. The supplements from the very fine Criterion release are absent, leaving us with naught but some TV spots and trailers.
I can't wholeheartedly embrace Straw Dogs, but I certainly can't dismiss it in disgust, either. This is a fascinating, troubling, challenging film which will stick with you and provide plenty of debate fodder. It's not for the faint of heart, but viewers who appreciate thoughtful provocation should give it a look.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 118 Minutes
Release Year: 1971
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* TV Spots