Straw Dogs

A part of this view­ing list: Cri­te­ri­on Col­lec­tion Spine #182: Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs

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If ever there is a movie that ful­fills the max­im “Beware the wrath of a qui­et man” Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs [1971] [don’t miss the essay from a real film crit­ic] is it. One of the many things Peck­in­pah does well is vio­lence. After all, he is the man who at first shocked, then pop­u­lar­ized mod­ern graph­ic vio­lence with The Wild Bunch. Sam isn’t one to have vio­lence mere­ly for vio­lence sake, though. It served a high­er pur­pose in The Wild Bunch, and it does the same in Straw Dogs, albeit more ambigu­ous­ly. This movie is a tough read. It is no sur­prise to me that it was banned for years in the UK.

Dustin Hoff­man plays the part of an Amer­i­can math­e­mati­cian, David Sum­n­er, who has moved to Corn­wall with his hot Eng­lish wife. He is the typ­i­cal uncon­fi­dent, pas­sive-aggres­sive, non­con­fronta­tion­al book­worm type, a nerd. A cow­ard. His wife Amy [Susan George] is also pas­sive-aggres­sive and it seems like nei­ther of them under­stand the oth­er. More impor­tant­ly for the film, Amy “has a past” with one of the local res­i­dents, a Fabio-type con­struc­tion work­er who is help­ing build a garage at their farm. Amy also skips around bra­less and wear­ing those lit­tle late 1960s skirt num­bers. If you watch the begin­ning of the film here: [embed­ded WMP stream, please excuse the Czech sub­ti­tles] you’ll see just how quick­ly Peck­in­pah cre­ates a sense of men­ace and desire between the men of the town and Amy. It also doesn’t help that Amy flash­es the work­men a cou­ple of times…

While this is going on we keep get­ting glimpses about how inca­pable David Sum­n­er is. He is qui­et, timid, can’t even ham­mer a nail, essen­tial­ly half a man. The film has oth­er half-men in it as well, the mag­is­trate, Major John Scott [T.P. McKen­na], has a dead arm and there is some sort of dan­ger or fear asso­ci­at­ed with the local halfwit, John Niles [Peter Arne] The oth­er men about are all rather creepy, aggres­sive, leer­ing and sneer­ing, rude, but strong and capa­ble too. True Full Men. Sum­n­er is aware of the jokes they make and the hints they drop, but doesn’t under­stand them. He just knows he is being made fun of.

Then some­one stran­gles the cat. And hangs it in the clos­et. Sum­n­er doesn’t want to admit that it was the work­men but Amy says “They want­ed to show you that they could get in your bed­room.” The next day he says he’s going to con­front them about it, but bails out. Much like I tend to do when I want to chat up a girl. Instead he agrees to go duck-hunt­ing with them the next day. He does and they ditch him.

This is the point where what we’ve been expect­ing since we saw the first hard nip­ple in the open­ing sequence: the rape scene. Char­lie Ven­ner [Del Hen­ney], the man with whom Amy “has a past” shows up, she’s sit­ting around in her bathrobe, she lets him in, know­ing full well what he wants, fix­es him a drink, lets him pin her against the liquor cab­i­net, kiss­es him and then decides she’s mak­ing a bad deci­sion. Or maybe she decides to play hard to get. Peck­in­pah walks the razor’s edge here with great skill. Through­out the whole sequence with Char­lie Ven­ner, him slap­ping her, tear­ing her clothes off, and the start of the fuck­ing, she goes back and forth between want­i­ng him and refus­ing him. Final­ly she decides that she likes it. I got the feel­ing that this was anoth­er strike against David, as if he can’t sat­is­fy his wife’s sex­u­al appetites. [I found the whole sequence of this in screen­shots online while look­ing for the final screen­shot in the entry, but I’m not link­ing to it because the whole site is ded­i­cat­ed to rape scenes in movies. Fuck­ing sick.]

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All of this is inter­cut with shots of David Sum­n­er try­ing to shoot a damn duck and miss­ing. He final­ly kills one, appar­ent­ly at the same time Char­lie bags his own bird. Sum­n­er goes to pick up the bird and it is still in its death throes [inter­cut with Amy’s orgasms]. Because he is so gen­tle, he is sad­dened at the death of the ani­mal and hides it.

Back to Amy. Char­lie is cud­dling with her, post-coital, when Chris Cawsey, anoth­er of the work­men comes in and wants a piece of the action too. Char­lie is unwill­ing, but since he’s got a shot­gun in his face, lets the slime­ball shuck his knick­ers. Amy is almost asleep, but looks to see what is hap­pen­ing and def­i­nite­ly doesn’t want it to. But it does. Of course, by the time Sum­n­er gets home they are long gone and a bruised face Amy doesn’t tell him. He doesn’t even ask why her cheeks are all raw or why she looks like death warmed over. He starts smooching all over her and Peck­in­pah cuts back to the ear­li­er rape scene and shows that he’s framed the shots almost iden­ti­cal­ly. He feels man­ly because he killed a duck with a shot­gun.

Sum­n­er fires the men the next day because they ditched him. That night he and Amy go to the church social where she can’t stop think­ing about the rape [well duh] and it is mar­vel­lous­ly inter­cut with the lame mag­ic tricks of the vic­ar. Jan­ice Hed­den [Sal­ly Thom­sett] has a big ole crush on David Sum­n­er and keeps try­ing to get his atten­tion, for all that she is 14 or so. Spurned by him, she decides to use John Niles, the [maybe rapist?] halfwit to get some. She sneaks off with him and when their absence is noticed all the men wig out. They claim they are try­ing to find Jan­ice, but give them­selves the lie because they only ask after John Niles. John gets scared when he hears their calls, acci­den­tal­ly stran­gles Jan­ice and takes off for the hills. David and Amy are head­ing home when he hits John Niles. They drag him into the house and David calls the pub for help. Bad idea, since all the Full True Men are there drink­ing some liq­uid courage so they can do what they’ve been want­i­ng to do for years, kill John Niles. They grab a cou­ple more bot­tles of liquor and head on up to the Sumner’s for a lit­tle bit of the old ultra-vio­lence. [Inci­den­tal­ly, this film was released the same year as Dirty Har­ry and A Clock­work Orange]

They mus­cle their way indoors and make Sum­n­er look like a sis­sy again, although he does defend Niles and man­age to talk them back out­side, until they’ve had a bit more to drink. Then they start break­ing win­dows. Now Sum­n­er decides to make his stand. Final­ly. Christ. Amy just wants to toss John Niles out to them. She doesn’t care what hap­pens to him. When David real­izes this we also real­ize that his strength is his gen­tle­ness, the very thing we’d derid­ed him for through­out most of the movie. The mag­is­trate shows up, tries to dis­arm the drunk­en louts and gets a shot­gun through his chest for his trou­ble. A one-armed man, no mat­ter how brave, can’t beat five dudes, one with a shot­gun. David sets traps, has to keep Amy from let­ting the men inside, final­ly gets her to do as he says and gets all reck­less [a very sligh dutch angle when he turns on some blar­ing bag­pipes, while grip­ping an iron pok­er is prob­a­bly the sweet­est shot in the movie]. Boil­ing oil, a bear trap, a shot­gun to the feet, David man­ages to kill every­one.

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Then he takes John Niles home, leav­ing Amy with all the dead bod­ies. I can’t real­ly blame him, she called out for Char­lie [the guy who held her down while she got raped!] instead of David while they were fight­ing each oth­er.

Straw Dogs is a great title, basi­cal­ly say­ing that the man­li­ness shown in the movie is like a vicious dog, but ulti­mate­ly one with no stead­fast­ness, no root, eas­i­ly blown burned or con­sumed. It has its prob­lems, name­ly the treat­ment of Amy through­out, but David treats her as an equal, as more than some­thing to shag, even though that wasn’t empha­sized quite so much. Still, Amy’s inher­ent igno­bil­i­ty, more a mat­ter of per­son­al­i­ty than wom­an­hood, can’t help but be spread about to include all women, at least in the movie’s terms. I keep waver­ing back and forth on that point, it is an obvi­ous weak­ness, but the movie isn’t about women. One of the major objec­tions to it in Britain was that it por­trayed rur­al British as inbred and vul­gar. Some­body has to be the bad guy. I’m ram­bling. I’ve gone on too long as it is. Just get your hands on a copy of this and come to your own con­clu­sions.

Cri­te­ri­on Essay by Joshua Clover.