Straw Dogs (1971)

One of the great film posters.

4 stars out of 4. Immortal film. Bold and uncompromising.

After the massive failure of The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), Sam Peckinpah found it near impossible to find work in Hollywood. So he took an opportunity with a small film company to make a film in England. What he didn’t realize is that this would place in the center of an emerging radical film movement that was completely unintentional. Almost as if it were the logical conclusion to the initial part of the New Hollywood of the late 60’s, early 1970’s British film was and is some of the most inventive and challenging material ever filmed. In this time of landmarks such as A Clockwork Orange, Get Carter, Don’t Look Now, The Wicker Man and The Devils, Peckinpah was bound to get his name back in the papers. Letting loose the director of The Wild Bunch in the middle of all of this creative freedom after being beaten by Hollywood yet again? Get ready, cause this one’s nasty. Nasty. Brutal.

Straw Dogs is a very simple story. Young couple moves to the remote English countryside in order to escape the increasingly turbulent times in America. Davis Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) wants to reside in a quiet old house in order to focus on his mathematics sabbatical. Amy Sumner (Susan George) is somewhat childish girl who simply wants pull David into having a bit of fun. She needs a bit of excitement in life with a certain amount of attention paid to her needs. Both of these things David cannot and will not be able to give her. So needless to say this new marriage is already on the rocks when the two bickering youths arrive in Amy’s hometown. They alternate between smooching, fooling around and bitter quarrels much to the amusement of the local populace. They laugh, cavort, fight, argue, scrap, screw and repeat the same steps in varying ways.

Gradually David unintentionally wears out his welcome with the locals who turn to manipulating him at every opportunity.This begins to turn violent when David and Amy find their cat strangled in the closet.

Amy had once been the local vixen of sorts, and some of the men remember those days only to well…this leads to the most controversial scene in the film where she is brutally raped by her ex-boyfriend and made to submit to his body. Then again with another man. Many hold this up as prime evidence of Peckinpah loathing women, but if you really look at the scene again, it isn’t in the slightest bit. The idea that this scene explores the context of “no is yes” is true as far as taking the phrase as an extremely sick joke. We are meant to be just as confused as the two players onscreen. This is heightened by the detached performances given by the entire cast. Amy invites Venner inside wrapped casually in a bathrobe. She doesn’t seem to be fazed by him at all until he caresses her talking of their former relationship. It is only at the point of physical contact being furthered that she begins to react negatively. Already the audience is confused at the implications of the scene because Amy seems to not want sex but her physical reactions are almost robotic. Venner encourages her to comply and repeatedly insists that he doesn’t want to hurt her. This brings up his protective side that almost seems comforting as he begins to force intercourse. Peckinpah edits the scene in such a way that it begins to become a sensory experience so that we are plunged into the same whirlwind of stimuli as Amy. What becomes most disquieting is how Amy seems to give into Venner via intercourse. In 1971 this seemed extreme but with the passing of time we as a culture have become more accustomed to real-life stories of how women have done this to escape their attackers. And after he is done, Venner looks over the dazed and breathless Amy with a sense of bondage, as if to say: ” I missed you”. Then Venner’s pal Norman Scutt forces him off at gunpoint with intent to have his way with the bountiful offering before him.

Now it becomes brutal. Though it is really more of the same, and still forced, the second rape is vile and cut more frantically as Amy is now crying out in a completely wrenching guttural mixture of pain and final surrender. The two men leave, with Venner in complete uncertainty of what to do.

The performances in this film are as cold as the English weather. This has left many detractors to proclaim the story as slow and uninvolving. The action is not really conveyed through dialogue but in little things that actors do, little moments that bring the characters to life as in all of the great Peckinpah films. Straw Dogs is one of the few films where it can be said that an entire scene revolves around chewing a piece of gum. You really get the sense that these people mean what they do and that it isn’t play acting. Dustin Hoffman gives arguably his finest performance as the stuck up turtle like David, who can’t even commit to fixing a toaster because it would make him more responsible. He prefers to be curled up surrounded by his work and protected by his large glasses and  highly fashionable turtleneck pullover sweater combo.

This contrasts of course with his actions in the film’s riveting climax. David has accidentally struck down the village idiot, who happened to be seen with the daughter of the local drunk. Having accidentally strangled her, the villagers are now out for his blood. David has no connections to this man, and all he needs to do is hand the man to the brazen men outside his house. Amy begs him to just give him over so they can be left alone. David is at his crux, we can see the ramifications of his options play across his face. Then he declares to Amy: “I will not have violence against this house.” David’s breaking point has been reached and crossed. Handing over the man would certainly mean his death, and soon the villagers reach the point of no return so that the Sumners must fight for their survival. They will die if they don’t.

“Jesus Christ, I got ’em all.” David goes into an unbelievable overdrive mounting a defensive inside his home. He constructs various little traps, barricades the doors and windows, withstands all kind of projectiles, and holds his own against greatly superior numbers and his own terrified wife. It is an unbelievable testament to the determination of one individual in the midst of insurmountable odds. He is bruised, bloody with clothes in tatters but alive. And he is for once enjoying himself. disturbingly, in violence he finds himself and then wants more. After striking down a man with a golf club, he does so again. And again. And again in a rhythmic expression of carnal joy.

“He’s playing music!” David begins blaring a record of bagpipes in the living room so that in the midst of all the carnage, there is an odd bit of defiant humor. Amy continually berates David to give them what they want, and despite what has happened to her, we and David cannot believe her coldness.

Very few films give the audience so many things to reflect over. Or leave one so completely exhausted afterwards. That is the mark of a great film, when you have been irreversibly marked by an experience that was unexpected. Straw Dogs is an experience every time and one of Peckinpah’s masterpieces. The next time you see it, you will likely do as I did and cheer in the ending, not caring any longer about the point of inner bestial urges in all of us. Because there’s really an even deeper point there that no one ever gets into. Peckinpah’s one recurring theme that defines all of his work is  the perseverance of the human spirit in the midst of overwhelming odds. It is sometimes eradicated, but no matter its fate it was still worth something. Something that we have lost hold of and must struggle to get back lest we lose it forever. David discovers this in acting for himself and his principles. He has turned to violence, but not become the thing he despised. He is wearier and stronger after finally taking action to declare his own humanity. Gone is the self-serving automation seen for the entire film. The violence was merely the key to unlock the door of his humanity. The thick barrier of indecisiveness has been shattered as completely as the windows by shotgun blasts.

There is a reason why the aftermath is scored by the deadwax of a record. Deadwax occurs when a side of music has ended and the needle has entered the locked groove at the edge of the label. It will loop until you lift up the needle and flip or remove  the record. The ending of the film is just like the ending of a record. It is a forced silence where you contemplate what you’ve just listened to and try to understand what it means. But it is not really our place to understand life, we are only meant to endure and it is this idea that makes it unbearable for us to live with ourselves.

Then we are treated to a locked groove message: “I don’t know my way home.” “That’s okay. I don’t know either.”

 

The vile 2011 remake has no purpose of being. I once asked the film’s maker why he had decided to make a new version of the film. Essentially I was told that it was because he could. Great answer. The film is dull, lifeless, stupid, inane, conventional and putrid. It transplants the action from rural England to the American South and we now have a cross with Deliverance. That’s just great. Just what we needed. Sam’s film had a depth, combining real people with real emotions, action and pain. This has nothing. Vile.

EDITIONS: The film was one of the original “video nasties” in the UK and remained banned until the early 2000’s. The main release was a nice 2 disc SE from Criterion with the excellent BBC documentary Sam Peckinpah: Man of Iron. The video was a nice 16:9 1.85:1, with clear Dolby 2.0 mono. MGM took back the rights and released essentially the same transfer sans extras on their own disc. Now the film has been released via MGM on Blu-ray in essentially what is a straight transfer of their best available elements. Unfortunately there are no extras and the sound has been remixed into 5.1.  The Optimum UK Blu-ray features their exclusive extras and lossless mono. But their transfer is downright awful. The best version would combine the MGM video with the Optimum audio and extras.  All of these editions are uncut.

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Filed under 4 stars, Film Directors, Film Review, Immortal Films, Sam Peckinpah

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