Starring-Dustin Hoffman, Susan George
Scott’s Review #733
Reviewed March 19, 2018
Straw Dogs (1971) is famed director, Sam Peckinpah’s, most startling and most controversial film. Hardly an easy watch, it will conjure up both disturbing and uneasy reactions, but is a work of art- teetering on an all-out art film. Viewers will cringe during intense scenes, but will also marvel at the film mastery of this classic, brought on a whirlwind roster coaster ride as story elements spiral out of control to a frenetic and powerful climax.
Intellectual American mathematician, David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman), moves with his sexy British wife, Amy (Susan George), to a Cornish countryside- the town in which she grew up in- where they proceed to encounter problems, both within their marriage, and external factors, as an angry mob of blue-collar workmen threaten their home life. When non-violent David is pushed to the limit, questions of morality are brought to light, as Amy faces her own demons and bouts with brutality and victimization.
The film, made in 1971, pushes the envelope greatly in its display of violence. Several years earlier, 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde, and Peckinpah’s own The Wild Bunch (1969), really were the films that got the ball rolling, but Straw Dogs continues the trend of the brutal violence that overtook American cinema in those days. While watching the film for the second time I was struck hard by the feeling that I was watching something important.
Amy’s rape scene is the toughest scene of all to watch for the sheer way in which it can be interpreted. Later, when Amy replays the scene in her mind, the audience is forced to endure the experience over again. Not content to only include the rape scene, Peckinpah wants the viewer to dissect the scene- the fact that Amy is assaulted by not one, but two men, and reacts differently to each of them, is the key here. The scene is complex in that, Venner, the first assailant is hunky and presumed to be a former beau, and she eventually relents to his advances, but does she enjoy the act? When Scutt enters the picture however, things turn from tender and ambiguous to violent and dirty.
Undoubtedly an influence to director Quentin Tarantino, is the final sequence of the film- a scene fraught with tension, violence, and grit. Now trapped in their house amid a mob of angry, drunk men, hell-bent on revenge, David and Amy must both bond with each other and match antics with the men. I experienced visions of 2015’s The Hateful Eight through the claustrophobic, cabin-like setting, and the quick edits that Peckinpah successfully uses throughout the entire film.
A sad scene, and at least a portion of the reason for the town folks rage, is a scene reminiscent of Frankenstein, when a hulking and mentally challenged man accidentally harms a young girl. Not knowing his own strength and meaning to protect the girl instead of kill her, the men folk of the town respond in a nightmarish and witch hunt manner. Suddenly, David becomes defender and protector of this man.
David’s change in character is interesting and the great Hoffman adds layers and layers of complexities to the role. At first a peaceful man, due to circumstances, he soon becomes the assailant, creating traps and weapons intent on maiming his prey. Hardly a violent man, this change of character is evidenced as we earlier see David nurse a wounded bird.
In addition to Hoffman’s traditionally great acting performance, Susan George succeeds in providing the perfect mixture of bitchiness, spoiled brat tantrums, and later, guilt-ridden angst, and fear. The villains are perfectly cast and believable as bored, simple-minded, and horny, small town boys just itching for trouble.
Lush is the gorgeous United Kingdom countryside featured in Straw Dogs, as frequent exterior scenes are shot, revealing lavish and plush mountainous areas- the sweeping beauty of the landscape counterbalancing the brutality revealed in other sections of the film.
Mixing super quick editing with a dark, compelling screenplay, with underlying themes of questioning ones manhood, Straw Dogs is a provocative and edgy tale of violence and revenge in a small town, that gives new meaning to the fear of “home invasion” and feeling vulnerable. Thanks to a great cast and lots of other facets, Straw Dogs is a timeless (and brutal) treasure.