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starring Dustin Hoffman, Susan George, Peter Vaughan, T.P. McKenna
screenplay by David Zelag Goodman and Sam Peckinpah, based on the novel The Siege of Trencher's Farm by Gordon M. Williams
directed by Sam Peckinpah
by Walter Chaw Straw Dogs is about an evil man who has so divorced himself from animal logic that he's become monstrous. He's cruel to his wife, comparing her to a child when she's lonesome and an animal when she's amorous, and he blames her for his detachment from himself. She gets impatient during foreplay if he chooses to take a moment to set his alarm or remove his watch, ergo she must be a nymphomaniac of low breeding. At one point, she mischievously changes a "plus" sign on his chalkboard to a minus and he changes it back so that it looks like a crucifix: the instrument of his martyrdom, the faith of his castration--the ideology that seeks to isolate him from his bestial nature. Finally, when she wishes to run away, he loses his grip on carefully-nurtured civilization, slaps her across the face, and orders her upstairs to the bedroom in the same way that Victorian women were banished from the room upon outliving the delight provided by their servile domesticity. This monster moves to a small Cornish village, where he insists on the creature comforts of home, paid for by a grant to study mathematics, of all things. And in the village the monster ultimately finds himself amongst men of a truer nature.
Sam Peckinpah films are rapes of the audience. They're intensely uncomfortable and invasive, intent on tearing down the scrim of society to reveal the ugliness housed in our lizard brains. His movies aren't exploitation, they're sexual evolutionary anthropology, something like the work of the brilliant Dr. Craig Palmer or Dr. Donald Symons. And they suggest that rape is at least as much about sex as it is about power--that women who flaunt their sexuality in unwise situations will sometimes get attacked as a result of it, and that men sometimes need to get rough in order to assert themselves in a world dominated and obsessed with violence. Peckinpah goes so far as to suggest that a denial of this (such as liberalism or feminism) is the worst sort of hypocrisy--it's a suppression of the shadow, which, as any good Jungian worth his/her salt must know, leads to magnification and inappropriate release. It's what caused Pauline Kael to dub Straw Dogs a "fascist classic." (She's right, you know.) In terms of addressing the animal darkness at the heart of every single human being with purposefulness and occasionally awful auteur pretension, Straw Dogs might be the most eloquent, most damnably unpleasant piece of celluloid ever stained. It's a milestone in gender studies--at least it ought to be, not because it preaches the comfortable, but because it insists on stumping the truth of our base nature. Men want to fuck anything that moves, women want to choose; both have to fight men for that right. That verity is a dictatorial master, indeed.
The villain of Straw Dogs is elitism and denial, both embodied perfectly in Dustin Hoffman's jittery, academic nebbish David. He's wholly ineffectual in dealing with the cult of man, showing himself most inept in an early scene as he manages to irritate everyone inside a pub with his halting, nationalistic nervousness. Peckinpah sets the stage as one drenched in testosterone and pissing contests, men lubricating themselves in endless drink, blood, and insult. (A moment where grizzled bastard Tom (Peter Vaughan) squeezes a barman's hand around a glass until it shatters crystallizes the atmosphere of the picture.) But the misconception of Straw Dogs is the suggestion that Peckinpah prefers this state of being when my suspicion is that most of Peckinpah's films are manifestations of his frustration with the candy-coated veneers imposed on what are essential truths about original sin and the fallen state of man. Packs of men are more easily driven to violence; women sometimes exacerbate dangerous situations with blithe displays of sexuality; boys only become men through violence, ritual, and struggle. It's a truism that every culture in the history of man has had a ban on rape, while it's equally indisputable that rape exists in every culture. The tension between man and the idealism of man's rules is eternal, with the denial of that in the clothes of religion, or political correctness, or liberalism gone awry setting the conversation back, leaving the sheep for the wolves.
So David is the villain of the piece because he's in complete denial that things are the way they are until they spiral out of control on the night of the village's church variety show. Upon killing the town strumpet (Sally Thomset), the town Lennie (David Warner) is hit by the car belonging to David and his wife Amy (Susan George) and returned to their farmhouse--which is promptly laid siege by Tom (the strumpet's father) and a gaggle of cronies, a couple of whom previously joined in a gang-rape of Amy. The scene of violence against her is notorious, exhibit one in the case against Straw Dogs as misogynistic. Amy is not only introduced in the film as a pair of nipples pushing against a soft white sweater, she also eventually begins to enjoy it when a childhood beau violates her. Then she's sodomized by a friend of the beau's, leading to a read of her ordeal as a cycle of her asking for it, her liking it, and then her getting punished for it. I think that's exactly what Peckinpah had in mind--it's certainly how it comes off, in any case. But I don't know that this is a statement about all women so much as it is a statement about this particular woman, damaged by her association with David and finding herself in a situation that is confusing at the least, horrific at best. The fault isn't in the inconstancy of woman, but that Amy has had it drilled into her that she's a nymphomaniac and an animal by the man she loves, constantly confronted by the inadequacy and serendipity of the same and left to her own devices after David's scheme to placate her imminent rapists results in him sitting alone in a field holding his cock. The range of emotions that George exhibits in her performance is extraordinarily complex. Proudly trying to explain the content David's book to someone, for instance, she seems to decompress as he interjects with a patronizing "Nice try, honey."
Once David and Amy find themselves barricaded in their rustic farmhouse against invaders from without (monsters of the id, if you will), David realizes at last that he needs to shed the liberalism of his outlook and adopt a more, forgive me, realistic outlook on his situation--he needs to stop acting like a pussy and be a man. (Something that the Democratic party in the United States would do well to remind themselves in four years' time.) Peckinpah's way with violence breaches in the last twenty minutes of the film like some kind of predator of the deep: Appalling and laden with gristle, it's lent power by our anticipation of it for almost all of the film. Fascinatingly, Amy never reveals to David that she was raped, and so the motivation for his transformation is just the cold truth of the world. Straw Dogs attracts a lot of derision from the Davids of the world, bumper sticker snags who would do well to appreciate that denial of the uglier truths about humanity--that we're stupid, venal, sexual, brutal animals--doesn't make them go away. It's probably wrong to call Peckinpah a philosopher, but it's no less wrong to deny that his films have a powerful philosophy. What happens in this picture doesn't happen because people are apes, it happens because one man denies that he's an ape. Straw Dogs is a glimpse into the hell of our secret selves, into the stark realities we do our best to deny as well as the situations in which we hope never to find ourselves, lest we find ourselves lacking in the crucible of being utterly, nakedly human.
MGM releases their own Straw Dogs DVD on the heels of Criterion's OOP two-disc edition, sans any special features but with its clear 1.85:1 anamorphic video transfer of the unrated 118-minute print of the picture recycled intact. The image has the washed-out patina of a 1970s film (one that is sort of an acquired taste but that, once acquired, proves unshakeable and wonderful) and indelibly shunts Papa Sam's way with shadows and grue onto the back of the eyeballs. Grain is noticeable in the nighttime sequences, with some shots during the siege nigh impossible to make out--but as many of the key after-dark exteriors take place in the middle of a deep fog (metaphorical and literal), forgiveness is due. The disc's DD 2.0 mono track is surprisingly spacious and free, though the centre-channel audio of the Criterion package admittedly sounds even better. For a bargain-bin catalogue title, MGM's presented a good, clean, and cheaper option for cinephiles looking for a perverse stocking-stuffer or a way to give the finger to Criterion, who, for as wonderful as they are, have a few lamentable blind spots in their distribution and marketing arm. Originally published: November 22, 2004.