People seem to love or hate this movie. I love it. Dustin Hoffman plays professor on “sabbatical” to write a book on astronomy and computers. There is some allusion to his having been driven to his sabbatical (or from his job) because of his refusal to take a stand over some undefined issue at his place of employment. In any case, he retreats to a farmhouse in rural England with his pretty wife, played by Susan George.
When some of the local underemployed thugs start bullying him–(The script and Peckinpah’s direction of the actors hits bull’s-eye here; having lived in England, I saw the same sort of behavior–punks all over, I guess, have mannerisms of bullying peculiar to their culture.)
The violent climax to this film is–you hate to say it–beautiful. It certainly isn’t gorey by today’s standards. This, perhaps, is what makes people so uncomfortable about this movie–their own reaction to the violence. Hoffman conveys wonderfully both the fear and the satisfaction his character is experiencing.
At one level, this film exists as a simple tale of revenge. At another level, the movie affirm’s Peckinpah’s vision of violence as a rite of manhood. Whether this rite is a regrettable one . . . well, that remains arguable, and this ambiguity is part of what makes this such a watchable, and re-watchable, movie.
Was this review helpful to you?
Aside from the notoriety, and aside from the viciousness (the film leaves you most of all with a taste of viciousness in your mouth, a sour, bitter, metallic taste, akin to that feeling you get reading “The Tin Drum”, the piece of metal stuck in the back of your throat), what you get from “Straw Dogs” is a manifestation of personal demons (specifically, Sam Peckinpah’s personal demons, but also, both more generally and more acutely, masculine demons) and an exploration of a certain type of male sexuality.
To do the film justice, you need to plug your brain in. Which, on the surface, may not appear to be the case, because the story – what it is – is relatively simple. It’s an English western.
David, a mathematician (Dustin Hoffman), is on sabbatical from the university where he teaches. He has left the states and returned with his wife Amy, (Susan George) to the tiny English village in which she grew up. From the word go, David has to contend with the fact that Amy has a history in the town. He also has to contend with the fact that she is younger than him, and bored. Her boredom serves as a distraction from the reason behind his sabbatical. Amy on the other hand has to live with a quiet, “odd” American who does not give her the attention she requires.
Within the town, there are various echoes at work: there is a character called Niles, played by David Warner, who has a known history of problems relating with women (to the extent that he has served time for undisclosed offences); there are the locals, who divide their time between procrastinating over work on David and Amy’s roof, and leering at Amy (who periodically informs David about the effect she has on them, how they “lick her all over with their eyes”); and there is David himself, spending a little more time than he really should looking at teenager Sally Thomsett.
All of which feeds into the terrible rape scene (a scene of which Peckinpah is quoted as saying – in the excellent biography “If it moves . . . kill ‘em” – “I wanted to film the best rape scene ever” – a line ripe with complexity and moral disorder): Amy is raped by Charlie, leader of the leering locals, who may or may not be her childhood sweetheart (two earlier scenes indicate that (a) something went on years earlier and (b) Charlie took it further then than Amy was happy with).
At some point during the awful protracted rape, for whatever reason (and there is something manifest at work in her face, palpably desire but desire for what – who knows?) she stops fighting and starts (ugly this, but true – this is what happens in the film:) – starts to participate. The participation is taken (by some) to be a playing out of a certain retrogressive masculine attitude (that all women – deep down etc etc etc). However you interpret it – and it does require interpretation, importantly – the participation is at the dark heart of “Straw Dogs”‘ notoriety. The fact that this is followed by the appearance of a second man, and a second rape, only compounds the difficulty – the cloudiness – that will inevitably surround any attempt to precisely articulate what is going on here.
At which point, the echoes become still more manifest: you have Niles, despised because of his weakness for young girls (and as such – in the context of the character’s lives – a “bad” man), you have the men who rape Amy (a fact that remains undisclosed within the body of the film), men who later attempt to avenge themselves on Niles (in a vivid reworking of “Of Mice and Men”), and you have David – a man in whom, perhaps, all of these violent urges conflict.
The film culminates in a series of extremely violent (and ridiculous) altercations, veering wildly between extremes (shotguns firing off left, right and centre, characters riding tricycles and playing bagpipe records, mantraps, boiling fat, fire, pokers, broken glass, wire). But the central relationship – the whole dynamic of the film – between David and Amy continues to fight definition, remaining ultimately unresolved and unclear.
In the end, aside of everything else (aside of the fact that this film lingers with you, you do not watch “Straw Dogs” and leave it at that, those “Straw Dogs” take up residence with you, for a while), you have the fact that this film would not get made today – the Dustin Hoffman character is too complex and too unsympathetic, and there are too many (coldly intellectual) questions raised by what goes on.
It is dissatisfying but intentionally so: this is Peckinpah’s “Salo”: it demonstrates that resolution is the most ugly abstraction, that what gets wrapped up leaves the viewer with no space for thought: that which is left open, is that which remains discussed. At the end, almost a week after last watching the film, I am reminded of what Ian McEwan wrote in his novel “Black Dogs”:…
Straw Dogs is a controversial film. Some people hated it, others loved it. The fact is that Sam Peckinpah was a controversial man: in his films, violence was a necessary test that every man had to face in order to prove his manhood. Peckinpah was a hard man, and his vision of life and humanity is shown in Straw Dogs, you may agree with him or not, but you will have to accept the basic concept: in the heart of every coward, burns a beast, a straw dog. And Peckinpah says in his movie that when you are caught in a dangerous situation, you change, and you are capable to kill or do anything in order to survive. No one did it better than this filmmaker, maybe Boorman with Deliverance, but Straw Dogs is a cruel testimony of the cruelty that common men are capable to do.Hoffman is terrific, and in the end, when his house and wife are in danger, his whole coward character changes, and he turns into a explosive and brutal murderer. Susan George carries on a difficult part, the scene of the rape is one of the most shocking and complex images of the seventies.In the end, you will understand why the tagline says that in the eyes of every coward burns a straw dog.