Thursday, October 21, 2010

Classic Throwback: Straw Dogs (Sam Peckinpah, 1971)

Sam Peckinpah's controversial feature, Straw Dogs (1971), starring Dustin Hoffman and Susan George, is an uncompromising examination of the male instinctual capacity for violence. To avoid the anti-Vietnam social chaos currently laboring his intellectual development, U.S Mathematician David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) and his wife Amy (Susan George) decide to move to an isolated town near Cornwall where Amy grew up and her father owns a house. Their presence, and notably his cowardice and bumbling ignorance of English traditions and her sensual beauty, provoke antagonism amongst the village men.

Their desire is to renovate the house, build a garage and settle down so that David can accomplish some work in peace. He hires a few of the local handymen to build the garage, including one of Amy's old flames from school. When David and Amy are returning from town with an antique bear trap to adorn the house, they run into Charlie Venner (Del Henney). Charlie remembers Amy and expresses in secret his still present desire for her, clearly resenting David. He volunteers to assist his mates with the garage and David agrees. Over the course of the next few days, the antagonism towards the couple, who are repeatedly at odds with one another themselves, grows worse.

What begins as a few slanderous phrases and uncomfortable perverted behavior culminates in the hanging of Amy's cat in the bedroom and then the brutal gang rape of Amy, while David has been lured by the foursome out into the woods for a day of shooting. The film was heavily censored and often banned because of this rape sequence. Receiving an X Rating upon release, Peckinpah's film garnered controversy, largely due to the part of the scene where Amy relinquishes her struggle and seems to enjoy the rape by Charlie. But when the second man, who controls Charlie at gunpoint, has his turn, it is evident she is by no means enjoying her experience. With the scene called a 'male-chauvinist fantasy' it is incredibly gratuitous for an early 70's release and wouldn't fail to shock even today. 

Following the rape, Amy doesn't tell her husband, but suffers from vivid mental flashbacks that plague her when she sees her attackers. In another parallel plot, the local tart and daughter of the town drunk, Tom (Peter Vaughn), runs off with the village simpleton, Henry Niles, prompting a man hunt. Treated like an outcast in the village, Niles accidentally kills the young girl and flees into the fog from his pursuers. Led by an inebriated Tom and including the other four prominent antagonists, they pursue Niles to Sumner's house. David, who has hit Niles with his car, makes a call for the doctor, prompting their knowledge of his whereabouts. They start an aggressive assault on the house, but David refuses to let the men into his home, which he quickly asserts as his personal 'castle', despite Amy’s requests.

The final twenty minutes of the film is a violent spectacle, as David unleashes his instinctual capacity for violence, resisting the attack – which includes the men shooting at the locks and breaking the windows in their attempts to find their way in. He is not fueled by violent revenge over the rape of his wife (as he was never told about it), but he is resisting their presence on his property and protecting his fellow alienated member of the town, who is too injured to fight back against the drunken lunatics. The final showdown is extremely violent, and having only heard about Peckinpah's other work, it seems like it a regular feature of his work. 

However, it is very difficult to believe that these men would go to such lengths as to completely destroy the Sumner's house in an attempt to question this man. It would have made more sense to search for the missing girl. But after they accidentally shoot the local Major, who tries to talk some sense into them, they feel they have gone too far to turn back. It all becomes a little too incredible and almost as peculiar as David's bizarre antics. He refuses to give over Niles, but is content to let his wife be the victim of objectification and ultimately place both of their lives in danger by the end.

Dustin Hoffman gives yet anther powerful performance as a man driven to unleashing the extreme violence that he abhors. Sumner is meekly trying to hide his primitive violent streak by not responding to the abuse of the townsfolk despite viewing himself superior to their hooliganism by purchasing American cigarettes, by deeming himself more intellectual and having ownership of one of their most desired women. Instead of confronting them aggressively about their murder of Amy's cat, he peacefully wants to let it go, while he simply tells the men to leave and pays them off for their objectification of his wife. He ultimately wants the respect of the local townsfolk without ever respecting them. He wants his wife to leave him in peace so he can work, essentially leaving her vulnerable to their taunts.

Straw Dogs has a bleak and uncompromising premise, and Peckinpah’s skillful orchestration is evident, but I wasn't wholly convinced overall. I found Hoffman's character to be just as despicable as his antagonists, and really didn't find anything to like in any of the characters. The violence is extreme and the moral questions it raises really failed to avoid hypocrisy. It will be continue to draw debate for years to come, and its classic status is certainly justified, despite the uncomfortable viewing.

My Rating: 3 1/2 Stars

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