Classic Musings: Straw Dogs (1971)

Few who have seen Sam Peckinpah's obstinately challenging Straw Dogs can forget the first time they did so. Granted, that's a distinction which falls on many of the director's works, but his subversive portrait of sex-driven power struggles and pent-up desire -- an adaptation of Gordon Williams' novel "The Siege of Trencher's Farm" -- does it in ways unlike his others. Some of it resides in his signature brand of violence, sure, brutally lavish yet keen on the scenes' geography and tolerance level for realism, while some of it comes from the wide-eyed, emotionally candid performances he generates from his leads. Then, there's the anti-war message spiked inside its symbolic posturing, which touches on the rebellious effects that the Vietnam War has on the era's youth. All good reasons, yet they don't compare to one particular hard-to-watch scene of carnal ambiguity, which truly punctuates the film's tenacity. You'll get wrapped up in the violence that ensues, but you won't be able to shake that from your mind.

An American astrophysicist, David (Dustin Hoffman), moves with his English wife Amy (Susan George) to her home village in the outskirts of England's moors, mostly so he can conduct his mathematical research away from the protests -- and drafts -- of the Vietnam War. The two seem like a highly unlikely couple; David's a stilted, mild-mannered, knowledge-rooted introvert who's concerned only with his work, while his braless wife flirts and saunters like a flippant teenager around the bucolic cottage they've moved to. And if David's not receptive to her advances, she has a tendency of diverting her attention to those around her. In this case, that includes a cluster of local carpenters working on the cottage's roof, one of which is an old flame of Susan's. As David's uncomfortable not-so-masculine persona begins to wear on the local boys, they begin mildly tormenting him, while also taking his passive nature as a gateway to zero in on Amy. While harmless at first, the tension among them escalates beyond control.

The swell of negative energy in Straw Dogs becomes its paramount driver, which Peckinpah constructs as a steady conflict of strength over gender, sexual energy, and a contorted sense of gruff countryside patriotism. He actively renders every character unlikable in the process, even -- and especially -- the underdog David. Coming off his transitional performance in Midnight Cowboy, Dustin Hoffman brings a controlled energy to the mathematician that hits a credible balance between masculine inferiority and infuriating social awkwardness, which accomplishes the difficult task in making a weak, nerdy man someone whom we won't readily sympathize with. When he's weaving around Amy's bottled-up sexual appetite (while also showing disdain for her cat) and pacifistically handling the scheming construction workers with beer and forced jollity, his poise gives off a seditious energy that's easy to see as a catalyst to the events that transpire. Not a justification, of course, but a comprehendible origin.

Straw Dogs boils at a steady pace -- both cinematically and thematically -- right up to its culmination point: the rape sequence, which earned Pekinpah an X-rating in the US and a full-on ban in England for its lurid context. By today's standards, the amount of skin or sexuality or even abrasiveness might not be enough to taper the film towards such a rating; however, the ambiguous implications stirring in the sequence -- in Amy's motives, her disposition, and her previous teasing actions feeding into this occurrence -- might still be. A mix of her terror and uncomfortable pleasure complicate the scene into a lengthy stretch of intensely-photographed claustrophobia where we're cringing at the varied emotions on her face, at whether the neglected wife actually finds joy and pleasure in being forcibly taken ... and whether it's something she actually wants. It's not an easy scene to watch and reflects heavily on a controversially-skewed viewpoint on rape, which leaves a raw feeling that lingers long after it's done.

Peckinpah's follow-through erupts in a violent cataclysm that only he could properly orchestrate, transforming the last act into a relentless, chilling home invasion scene that racks those already jittery in the audience with intense stylized violence, involving hot oil, nail guns, and bear traps. While it appears to be the emergence of David's hubris and masculinity on the surface, alongside the clear end of his rope, it's also, within the context of one of the film's subplots, a metaphor for the opposition to the Vietnam War, and for the general perception of participating in conflicts which people aren't directly involved in. While watching David shake his head and wield a shotgun at his foes as he interjects in a situation, he's gallantly fighting for a cause that he -- or anyone else, for that matter, aside from the audience -- has little to no clarity on. Straw Dogs is all about perception and the exertion of dominance while surrounded by conflicting factors, and few films are comparable in terms of moral ambiguity.

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