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 olé 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.

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