There are plenty of controversial movies. Sam Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs” is notorious.
How notorious? The new Criterion Collection Blu-ray of Peckinpah’s 1971 film is the first Criterion disc I know of that includes an extensive interview with a film critic who is not a fan of the movie. Actually, Linda Williams, who calls the film “deeply misogynistic,” likens “Straw Dogs” to D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” as a film that shouldn’t be buried or dismissed, but studied and talked about.
Others are more complimentary, of course. But Peckinpah’s film stills hits like a punch to the gut, leaving us queasy and unsettled. The home invasion thriller has become a genre onto itself over the years, from “The Strangers” to “The Purge” — one could see Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games” as a bald rebuke to Peckinpah’s vision. But none are as disquieting.
Having never seen “Straw Dogs” until now, but being generally familiar with the concept, I had always assumed that the film took place in the Deep South. (In fact, Rod Lurie’s 2011 remake moved the action to Mississippi). But the original takes place in the deceptively quaint-looking region of Cornwall, England. The locals are all blue-collar, but at first they seem more or less like normal blokes who enjoy their pint at the pub.
But it’s an insular community, and the locals don’t take kindly to a newcomer in their midst. That’s David (Dustin Hoffman), an American mathematician who has bought a cottage with his wife Amy (Susan George), a Cornwall native who left town years ago. That she has returned with a worldly American husband doesn’t sit well with their new neighbors, especially Charlie (Del Henney), Amy’s old beau.
David and Amy hire Charlie and his mates to fix the roof of their garage, because, of course, the effete David doesn’t know one end of a hammer from the other. The Brits are polite, mockingly so, and their presence just outside the window unnerves the couple, turns them against each other. David both condescends to these locals and is desperate to be liked by them; in one scene, he goes out to confront them about a horrible act of vandalism, and as Amy watches through the window, she sees her husband end up lighting their cigarettes for them.
It’s like watching childhood bullying acted out by adults – Peckinpah underscores this by showing David swinging dejectedly on a tree swing in one scene, his tormentors laughing and pedaling little tricycles in another. The film’s scorn for David is palpable – when he falls for an obvious local prank similar to a “snipe hunt,” you can almost hear Peckinpah sneer from behind the lens at the hapless David fumbling with his gun.
But it’s the sexual politics here that are the most troubling, as Peckinpah suggests pretty baldly that Amy is attracted to the alpha dog. Her teasing of David turns to taunts; he in turns seems to play up his weakness, knowing it outrages her. David should be the victim, the reluctant hero of the narrative, but Hoffman plays him as petulant and arrogant. He leaves himself no allies; when the so-called “respectable” members of the village, including the local vicar and the constable, pay him a social call, his condescension is barely concealed.
Things come to a head in the most notorious scene in “Straw Dogs,” in which Amy is raped by Charlie and one of his friends. Graphically, the scene seems tame by modern standards, although it was enough to secure the film an X rating in the United States and get it banned in Britain.
But what’s truly disturbing about the scene isn’t its graphic nature, but that Peckinpah includes reaction shots from Amy that suggest, at least with Charlie, that her terror is mixed with desire. It’s a repellent moment that Williams calls out.
One would assume that the rape is the fulcrum on which “Straw Dogs” turns, sparking the final violent confrontation between David and the locals. But Peckinpah muddies the water even further – David, as far as we know, never learns about the rape. Instead, Peckinpah introduces a completely different reason for conflict in the third act – David harbors a mentally disturbed man who Charlie and his men think abducted a local teenage girl. They lay siege to David’s cottage in an attempt to lynch the man. And what we know, but neither David nor the assailants know, is that the man is guilty.
So the final showdown, a chaotic riot of blood and noise that involves shotguns, bear traps and saucepans of boiling oil, explodes because of David’s insistence on due process. It’s here that some critics have seen “Straw Dogs” as an allegory for the Vietnam War – a superpower drawn into a ruinous war over a smaller conflict it doesn’t even understand.
That seems a little too pat to me for such a messy movie. In “Straw Dogs,” Peckinpah seems more concerned with the barbarism lurking beneath the veneer of civilized society – and, perhaps, where the veneer is thickest, the deeper the barbarity underneath. I don’t know if I could recommend the movie to anybody. But it has a crude, sweaty potency to it that the years haven’t dulled, and left me shaken.