Sam Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs” was a provocative and (as a result) controversial movie of its time. Yet after watching it just a few days ago (some 52 years after its original release), I was surprised by how startlingly contemporary (and urgent) its themes happen to be. Take something like “toxic masculinity”, an issue which is routinely examined today and almost always through the same lens. Peckinpah approaches it much differently. He not only explores a warped vision of masculinity, but also what can happen when masculinity is lost.
“Straw Dogs” is an undeniably hard watch and was censored in some places and outright banned in others. The pushback came from the film’s disturbing violence, in particularly a challenging rape scene that upset people for a variety of reasons. Peckinpah scoffed at the criticisms in his notoriously abrasive, no-nonsense style. Yet many of the film’s more vocal critics accused Peckinpah of things like endorsing violence and glamorizing rape. Of course neither are accurate, but it was enough to earn the movie quite a reputation.
Written for the screen by Peckinpah and David Goodman, “Straw Dogs” is an adaptation of the 1969 Gordon M. Williams novel The Siege of Trencher’s Farm. Peckinpah infamously disliked the book. But following an ugly falling out with Warner Bros. he was left with limited opportunities. So he took off for England to create his galvanizing version of Williams’ story. It would end up leaving some critics and audiences shocked despite coming from a filmmaker not exactly known for his delicacy.
Dustin Hoffman delivers one of his very best performances playing David Sumner, an American mathematician who has received a grant to research and study stellar bodies. He and his attractive wife Amy (an indelible Susan George) leave the States for her small hometown village in Cornwall where they move into a rustic two-story cottage once owned by Amy’s father. David hopes the quiet rural setting will be a perfect place to study. But things sour pretty quick.
We quickly notice that the village folks aren’t high on outsiders, especially a milquetoast intellectual from America. First David and Amy run into her ex-boyfriend Charlie Venner (Del Henney) and his four ruffian friends. They’re lifelong locals whose eyes are filled with an unnerving mix of resentment and lust. They lock onto Amy with an uncomfortable gaze, setting the table for a cat-and-mouse game that quickly gets out of control.
Charlie and his friends work under a brutish drunk named Tom (Peter Vaughan) who barely attempts to veil his animosity towards David. Tom send his guys to finish putting a roof on David and Amy’s garage. But they spend more time yucking it up and catching glimpses of Amy than actually working. Rather than call them out, David let’s their behavior go, revealing a side of his character that has serious implications on how the story unfolds.
As we spend more time with David and Amy, the cracks in their relationship begin to show. Amy resents her milksop of a husband, calling him a coward for running away from an America amid the chaos of campus war protests, the civil rights movement, and violent riots across the country. David rejects the label even though he proves her right time and time again. For example, she pleads with him to confront Charlie and the other workers; to say something about their lewd catcalling; to threaten to fire them if they don’t finish their work. But David, as self-absorbed as he is spineless, refuses. From there things only escalate, eventually giving way to a combustible third act.
While David’s contempt and cowardice ensures he’s no hero, Amy is far more complex. She rightly calls him out for his haughtiness and condescension. She’s right for expecting him to stand up and defend her and their home. But she’s not above rubbing his insecurities in his face. She’s alluring and vivacious and her provocations range from mocking to suggestive (I’ll leave you to discover what I mean).
Nothing about what happens next is remotely pleasant or cathartic. First is the film’s notorious rape scene – a fixture of controversy as much today as it was in 1971. It’s a fittingly troubling but surprisingly layered sequence that has prompted numerous interpretations over the years. Then there’s the film’s final 30 minutes – a violent siege on the couple’s home where the pacifistic David finally takes a stand. But not out of some noble concern for his wife’s well being. It’s more out of ego and rage which unleashes his own primitive inner violence.
Amy may show bad judgement and sometimes act petulant and juvenile, but make no mistake, she’s the victim of the film. Despite some claims, the film doesn’t cast the blame on her and the complexity of her character doesn’t equal guilt. There’s never a sense that ‘she got what was coming to her’. Peckinpah’s vision isn’t that shallow or misogynistic. Well before the physical and psychological violence Amy is treated with little regard by her husband. She yearns for his attention but David keeps her at a distance, leaving her to feel alone and disconnected. David’s negligence and self-absorption sets into motion much of what follows.
“Straw Dogs” is ugly, disturbing, and hard to take in, just like a story of this nature should be. It’s also hard to turn away from thanks to Peckinpah’s direction, John Coquillon’s fiercely hypnotic cinematography, and great performances especially from Hoffman and George. The film’s ambiguity may be a stumbling block for some, but it has long been a key part of the film’s allure. It opens up the movie to a number of thoughtful (and frankly discomforting) considerations which only intensify as things move from a slow simmer to a scalding boil.