Consider yourself fairly warned: Judge Joel Pearce doesn't think you'll enjoy the brutally direct themes of this Sam Peckinpah thriller.
"…I care. This is where I live. This is me. I will not allow violence against this house."—David
"A man's home is his castle, but it shouldn't have to be a fortress."—Calvin's Dad, Calvin and Hobbes
This is the first exposure that I have had to Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs. Although I'm not sure that the critical community really needs another young lit student analyzing this controversial film, I will step up and do my best; hopefully helping others who have not yet seen it to decide whether or not it's worth checking out. This new MGM edition certainly is a cheaper way to see the film than the previously released Criterion edition, but it's also severely lacking in the extras department.
Facts of the Case
David (Dustin Hoffman, The Graduate), a young American professor, moves to a house in the English countryside with his young wife Amy (Susan George, Twinky). One of the major reasons that they moved to England was fear of violence in the United States related to the civil rights movement. Unfortunately, they find their new home to be far worse when the local hooligans set their eyes on Amy and take a strong disliking to the rather meek David. The threat of physical violence becomes reality when Amy is raped and David finds himself in the middle of a serious local dispute. David is forced to either find some courage quickly, or turn tail and flee.
Thrillers work by winding us up, then giving us moments of release, only to wind the tension up once again. In many thrillers, both the tension and release come in the form of violence. The threat of violence against the good characters creates tension, and successful violence against the bad characters creates the release. We have become so used to that formula that we don't even really feel the impact of that violence anymore. We feel happy when the bad guys get it in the end. We cheer when the really bad characters get it in a particularly gruesome way. We've been programmed to respond this way by years of watching thrillers, and we know how it works.
Sam Peckinpah knows how it works too. Just as The Wild Bunch was designed to re-sensitize viewers to the horrors of Western violence, this was designed to re-sensitize us to the horrors of thriller violence. There's a problem, though. The Wild Bunch dismantles the Western, but still works as a darn good Western. Straw Dogs manages to deconstruct the thriller, but it doesn't work as one. Instead of using suspenseful stops and starts, it has a single, long, unpleasant and uncomfortable build-up of tension, beginning with the threat of physical and sexual violence and ending in the reality of physical and sexual violence. As a result, we can't be sure how to react when the violence does begin. Do we cheer our hero as he defends his home? Do we laugh when the villains are killed and maimed in horrible ways? I feel no pity for these men, who are never presented as anything more than monsters masquerading as British villagers. Still, there is nothing about David's character that makes me feel an attachment to him by the end, either. Straw Dogs explores the underbelly of violence and savagery beneath civilized society, but I'm not sure that I buy into it completely. At the very end, when Peckinpah starts pulling out the oldest action thriller tricks in the book, Straw Dogs even threatens to become exactly what it is fighting against. In its climactic battle, The Wild Bunch became a tragedy of a Hollywood genre that had reached the end of its usefulness. Straw Dogs feels more like the ultimate acceptance of the violence that it set out to combat.
The bigger problem, and one that's far less clear, is the way that Peckinpah approaches the women in the film. It is distinctly possible that he is trying to make a statement about rape and sexual violence. Amy enjoys being sexy and gaining the attention the men around her, and she has a tendency to flirt too much. What happens to her at the hands of her assailants is dreadful, though; enough that we as male viewers should understand that women are never "asking for it" in the way that the villagers believe. At the same time, there's something about that whole aspect of the film that makes me very uncomfortable. The way that Amy embraces the adultery with Charles after she is slapped around a bit, and the way that Janice clearly is asking for it, don't seem to fit into that model. There's something distinctly misogynistic about the whole thing, as though Peckinpah wanted to explore this kind of violence as an unfortunate but unavoidable side effect of women's liberation. I don't want to put words in his mouth, but I don't think I can read it any other way. Considering what she already knows of these townspeople, it's very stupid for Amy to act the way that she does; and the character seems smarter than that as a whole. Is she to be understood as an impulsive animal, as David calls her often throughout the film? I'm sure Straw Dogs is rather unpopular with the feminist community, and I find myself repulsed by the film for the same reason.
Straw Dogs isn't exactly subtle, either. Although there are a few frustrating ambiguities at the end, the themes of violence and rape run through every single character and plotline in the film. David and Amy's relationship is full of the threat of violence, which taints the passion they have for each other. Each of the villagers seems to be consistently involved in or discussing sexually deviant behavior.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The situation isn't all bad. Regardless of the approach taken with respect to the violence against Amy, there's no denying that Straw Dogs makes a strong statement. The whole film is brilliantly shot and edited, capturing the violence in a way that hasn't lost any of its power in the past thirty years. Although most viewers (including myself) have seen more graphic films than this, few have ever made me feel this uncomfortable. The tone of the film is unflinching and pervasive, with a purity that I have almost never experienced before. Everything relates to the violence—the situations in town, the conversations between David and Amy, the banter between the men working on the roof. There aren't any breaks from this theme, which forcibly drives the story to its inevitable disastrous end.
The performances are exceptional, too. The only character with any real depth and development is David—it's one of Dustin Hoffman's strongest performances in his long and impressive career. His passive-aggressive tendencies at the beginning of the film are perfectly captured, which makes his transition to violence seem believable. I don't really buy into what the film has to say about humanity, but I do buy every minute of this performance. The other actors put in excellent work, but they are as uniform and one-sided as the script. It doesn't take the audience long to realize what kind of people the villagers are, but we still wouldn't want to go there. The possible exception to this is Amy, who seems to be struggling with a dilemma of desire and loyalty. Her character is full of inconsistencies, but Susan George handles the part as best she can. There are a few moments where she seems to be overacting, but it feels like an intentional choice.
The disc from MGM has a solid technical transfer. The anamorphic image is impressive, especially considering the age of the source. The colors tend to be muted, with a focus on neutral and earth tones; but that seems to be an artistic choice more than a limitation of the transfer. The dark level is excellent, which is very important for the last half of the film. The sound is not quite as good; a mono track that definitely shows its age. The voices are always clear, but the whole thing sounds just a bit tinny—not at all surprising, considering it was recorded over 30 years ago.
Where the disc really fails is in the extra feature department. Films this controversial really need to come with some context. I suppose we already have the Criterion edition for that, but it would have been nice to have at least something here. They didn't even put the original trailer on the disc.
I can't deny that Straw Dogs is a powerful and well-made film. That said, it's not really the kind of film that you would toss in for your buddies after the Super Bowl. I don't regret watching it, but I seriously doubt that I will ever force myself to watch it again. Peckinpah makes a strong statement, but it's a statement to which I have a pretty strong aversion. If you believe that human society is only a razor's edge away from total chaos, you may find that Straw Dogs strikes a chord with you. There is a better version available, but I suppose the MGM version offers a choice for those who don't want to sell their firstborn children or mortgage their houses in order to get the Criterion version. Be warned, though, that the ultimate message of the film is pretty hard to swallow for a contemporary audience—with very good reason.
The defendant has been sent in for a full and thorough psychiatric evaluation, which will be brought to the court before any sentencing decision is made.
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