“Straw Dogs,” one of Peckinpah’s strongest films, is a provocative study of violence and its consequences in tense situations. The movie was shocking at the time of its release for its explicit gore, and for its analysis of the hidden bestiality of presumably civilized human beings.
The script was written by Peckinpah, with contribution from David Zaleg Goodman. based on the book, The Siege at Trencher’s Farm by Gordon Williams.
“Straw Dogs” plays with (and manipulates) and against viewers’ expectations to the point where we don’t know where our sympathies lie? Do we want the Dustin Hoffman character to execute justice and take the law into his hands, as he does in film’s climax, or not? In other words, what’s the “proper” (and “manly”) reaction to escalating violence? Is society helpful in prescribing and proscribing such behavior?
At the peak of his career, Hoffman plays David Sumner, a quiet mathematician, who with his wife Amy (Susan George) escape the ordeals of urban life by moving to her birthplace, a seemingly quiet small Cornish village. Upon arrival, they hire four local men to build a garage. Before long the quartet starts making problems and life unpleasant for David. Led by Charlie (Del Henney), a former boyfriend of Amy’s, the brutish men ridicule David and ogle Amy, who somehow seems to encourage their attentions.
Trying to win their acceptance, David agrees to join them on a hunting trip, but two of the men desert him and return to the cottage and rape Amy. Amy remains ambivalent about the experience and, for a while, chooses not to tell her husband.
In his first film outside the Western genre, Peckinpah moves to the Cornish countryside, situating his story of unbridled primal masculinity amidst harsh landscape. The dreary setting suits the film’s bleak vision of mankind’s repressed brutality, providing striking contrast to the tale’s incendiary sexual and physical explosiveness.
David claims that they have left the U.S. because of the seclusion their new home, but Amy suspects that the real motivation was lack of conviction, or David inability take a stand on the Vietnam War debate, choosing instead seemingly quieter pastures. But the quaint village provides the couple with little tranquility or peace of mind.
Initially, the “bookish,” self-absorbed David is more interested in equations and his work than he is in domestic life or pleasing wife Amy. For Peckinpah, David represents a passive, asexual man, lacking physical stature and moral courage.
As directed by Peckinpah, the tale’s build-up is taut, and the conclusion inevitable in its fiery explosion. The film’s most scandalous scene, which involves graphic depiction of Amy’s rape, has been charged with misogyny, voyeurism, and exploitation, but it actually fits into the Peckinpah’s views on inevitability and futility of gruesome violence, manifest in his 1969 masterpiece, “The Wild Bunch.”
In a climactic act of defending his turf, David takes up arms and protects his home from the invading marauders, but his eventual success is not seen as a victory due to the ambiguous tone. Moreover, in the aftermath, David leaves Amy behind in the bloody house, driving off with John Niles, a disturbed man-child. Was David’s conduct a necessary rite of passage in the process of becoming a “real man”? What impact would this act of violence have on his future life?
The theme of mankind’s potential for animalistic behavior has been explored by Kubrick and other directors in several films of the era. It’s noteworthy that Kubrick’s controversial “A Clockwork Orange” was made the same year as “Straw Dogs,” and that both works gave severe headaches to the Motion Picture Rating Board.
Oscar Nominations: 1
Original Dramatic Scoring: Jerry Fielding
The winner wasMichel Legrand for “Summer of ’42.”
Directed by: Sam Peckinpah
Screenplay by: David Zelag Goodman and Sam Peckinpah, based on the novel, “The Siege of Trencher’s Fram, by Gordon M. Williams.
Running Time: 117 Minutes