Straw Dogs Review
Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs is a shocking, funny, exciting and deeply troubling movie - in short, a masterpiece. It's a hand grenade of a film, tossed to the viewer just as it's about to explode and the effect is devastating. Where most controversial films of the past tend to look rather tame, Peckinpah's film is just as horribly disturbing as it was to audiences in 1971. Notorious for the central double rape sequence, it was only in 2002 that it finally received an uncut 18 certificate for home viewing. The film's detractors call it misogynistic, Fascist and even mindlessly violent. None of these charges even begin to hold water as a thoughtful viewing immediately confirms. It's certainly uncomfortable to watch and, psychologically, more than a little confused. But it is also thoughtful, insightful and tightly controlled.
There are some spoilers in the following discussion, so anyone who is unfamiliar with the film might wish to skip down to my review of the disc.
The storyline is familiar stuff. An American mathematician, David Sumner (Hoffman), arrives in the Cornish hometown of his young wife Amy (George). He is met with thinly veiled hostility and the sort of obsequious forelock-tugging which is almost worse than outright aggression. The town is an enclosed community, centring around the pub, the church and the waning authority of the local JP, Major Scott (McKenna). The Major is locked in an old antagonism with Tom Hedden (Vaughan), a brutish patriarch who considers himself the arbiter of law in the town. He drinks and carouses with a group of locals who include Norman Scutt (Hutchison), the ratcatcher Chris Cawsey (Norton) and Charlie Venner (Henney), a one-time boyfriend of Amy's. These three are doing some building work for David, who regards them as unsettling but essentially harmless. Indeed, for a while, they confine themselves to banter and spiteful gossip about their American employer, but the tensions in the town begin to boil over when the men's flirting with Amy, a beautiful young woman who encourages their attentions, turns into outright harrassment. They trespass in David's bedroom, steal Amy's knickers and play petty psychological games with David. The marriage of the Sumners is far from happy as it is - David married his student without realising that she is bound to grow up into her own person while Amy married her teacher and quickly realised that he was not able to satisfy either her sexual or emotional needs. The pilgrimage back to Cornwall was meant to ease tensions but ends up bringing them to boiling point, especially when Charlie Venner decides that it's time to renew his acquaintance with his old flame Amy. The resulting violence is horrifying, triggered both by Amy's violation and David's determination to give sanctuary to the mentally handicapped Henry Niles (Warner) who has inadvertantly killed Hedden's beloved daughter.
This is all set up with seemingly effortless skill by Peckinpah, a director who was always just as good with character as he was with action, and he relishes the chance to portray an insular English community which is just as bizarre as any he might have found in his beloved Old West. The locals, led by the terrifying Peter Vaughan - a marvellous screen actor who deserves more recognition - are vivid and realistic, the men who sit in the corner of the pub whose eyes you don't want to meet. They would be simple thugs in a lesser film by a less astute director but Peckinpah gives them dignity and subtle shading. Scutt is a foul creature but his single-minded hatred of those above him in the class system is beautifully hidden by an insincere politeness. He watches for much of the time but when he explodes, as he does to David when prevented from hurting Niles, the effect is alarming. Chris Cawsey is given the chance to be genuinely funny and rather likeable as well as unpleasant, notably when he rides around on an old bike while laying seige to Sumner's house. Even Hedden is given a believable reason to be resentful of the Major, who constantly refuses his offer of a drink and acts as if he is the local Squire moving among inferiors - and when he hears of his daughter's death his violent fury is all the more effective for his obvious grief and determination to avenge her with what he sees as natural justice.
But Peckinpah's real genius for character is shown in his treatment of David, Amy and Charlie Venner. David is an academic whose lack of common sense and understanding of his surroundings shows the limitations of a life devoted to the intellect. Unable to bond with the villagers, he retreats to his blackboard and neglects his wife in every way but the sexual, the only way in which he shows her any real interest. It has been said that Peckinpah is making an anti-intellectual statement but I think that's a fundamental misreading of the character and a simplification of the film. David lives his life based on rational logic and when the locals decide to rape his wife and lay seige to his house he reacts in a logical fashion, solving a problem as if it was a mathematical equation. He analyses the situation, prepares himself for the task and works through it until, as he says at the end, "I got 'em all". The suggestion that this is simply saying that books are fine but real men have to be violent is, I think, fundamentally wrong. I think Peckinpah is making a pessimistic statement about violence and anger; that all of us, men or women, instinctive or intellectual, will resort to any means necessary to protect themselves, their loved ones and their property, and there is nothing to stop it happening or getting out of control once the process starts. David's violence is peculiarly orderly but once he unleashes it, something seems to snap. At the very end of the film, he smiles into the distance while driving but it's not a smile of triumph, more one of absolute nihilistic emptiness as he acknowledges that he no longer knows his way home. He may not even have a home anymore - or a marriage for that matter. This is not a glorification of violence, it's a despairing portrait of a world in chaos. Dustin Hoffman plays this entirely straight but with a humour that makes David less annoying than he might be in other hands. It's often the little details that convince; sadistically throwing oranges at the cat, flirting with Amy without doing anything about it, doing his exercises before bed, winding the clock instead of making love to his wife, picking up a chair and putting it neatly away after the violent climax. Hoffman doesn't use any of his usual tricks, no funny voice or carefully practised walk and the result is a believable character who doesn't beg for our sympathy.
The character of Amy is rather more complex than that of David and, thus, considerably more problematic. Critics of the film have seen her as a misogynistic portrait of the nymph who leads men on and then gets more than she bargained for, as if the film is supporting the old macho lie that all women are asking for it and deserve what they get. Again, this is such an alarming simplification and misreading of the film that it leads me to wonder whether these writers have actually watched it properly. The film is certainly critical of her, as it is of David, and she comes across as a rather annoying young girl who is jealous of her husband's work and flirts with other men in order to get his attention. But this is hardly an unusual concept and David's coldness to Amy seems designed to immediately get the audience on her side. Amy is naive about her relationship with her husband but she does try her best to do the things she thinks a good wife should do - notably in the horribly embarrassing, riveting scene where her attempts to organise a nice social gathering fail when the pompous Vicar (Welland) comes round and immediately clashes with David. Most of all, she seems desperately lonely and in need of some affection, which is presumably why she allows Charlie to enter the house when her husband is out on an abortive hunting spree.
It's the scene between her and Charlie, and then between her and Scutt, that has caused the film to be endlessly controversial. Charlie wants to renew their relationship but Amy is reluctant, so he hits her, drags her by her hair to the settee, strips her and forcibly penetrates her. Obviously, it's a rape but Amy's attitude towards it is complicated by her history with Charlie She goes from violently objecting to reluctantly submitting and finally to tearful acceptance. Somewhere deep within Amy is the memory of her life before David when she felt attractive and wanted and I think that in a sense it's this memory to which she submits and not to Venner. The point I want to make is that this is not a simple "She wants the rape really" or a simplistic "First rape good second rape bad" situation but a complex examination of two people and their relationships that can't be pinned down to one analysis. But it's the second half of the scene which makes Peckinpah's intentions quite clear. Venner's actions to Amy become less violent and more tender - there's a closeness between them that isn't present in her relationship with David - but as they are lying together, holding each other, Venner sees the barrel of Scutt's shotgun pointing at him. In a truly despicable piece of masculine weakness, Venner holds Amy down while Scutt forcibly sodomises her. Amy's distress and obvious hatred of what is happening to her is portrayed vividly and unambiguously and Susan George's performance is simply superb, by far the best thing she has ever done during her entire career.
In comparison, Venner is pretty straightforward but it's worth noting both Del Henney's poised, careful performance and the way in which Peckinpah allows the character to be as reflective as he is menacing. He isn't the thuggish rapist that we might see from a hack director, but a man who is caught on the edge of a group with which he doesn't entirely feel comfortable and then thrown into confusion when the women he once loved turns up again with a husband that he despises. His decision to hold Amy down to allow Scutt to rape her is the moment when he loses whatever chance he might have to restore any kind of relationship and also the point where he finally throws in his lot with his mates.
Sam Peckinpah is best known for his violence - hence the irritating soubriquet 'Bloody Sam' - and the brutality here is just as effective as it is in The Wild Bunch albeit less graphic. But what's just as significant is his handling of the build up to the violence. When the local men lay seige to his house, David spends a lot of time panicking and then thinking and finally preparing. His ultimate decision to defend the house doesn't come easily to him and his violent defence is done in quick bursts which we aren't always expecting. Peckinpah's reputation for wallowing in violence is, however, entirely undeserved. What he does is heighten our awareness of the violence, make us both disgusted and excited by it and then he asks us how we really feel about it. Every death here is horribly grisly and tremendously exciting at the same time. The use of slow motion, inspired by Kurosawa and refined by Sam to the level of art, gives the flying bodies a grace and presence that is alarming because it's so oddly beautiful. By abstracting the physical brutality, Peckinpah heightens and lengthens it to a point where it becomes absurd. This is sometimes very disturbing, notably in the elongated fight between Sumner and Venner, because we are unsettled and not really sure how we should be reacting.
The direction of the actors is first class and Peckinpah also shows us that he's unexpectedly adept at social comedy in the encounter between David and the Vicar. His collaboration with DP John Coquillon results in some marvellously bleak views of the English landscape, similar to Coquillon's exceptional work on Witchfinder General. Three editors worked on the film - Tony Lawson, Roger Spottiswoode and Robert Wolfe - and their efforts are tremendously important to the film. Peckinpah would sometimes deliberately shoot a master and the shoot coverage which is slightly different in order to disorientate the audience and it's a credit to the editing that this doesn't seem obvious if you don't know about it.
But it's impossible to finish a review of the film without coming back to Peckinpah. In my view, he's one of the few really great directors of the 20th Century and Straw Dogs is fascinating for the insight it gives into his troubled and confused mind. His messed up attitudes to women, his intellectual side that clashed with his love of the 'simple life', his almost suicidal drinking habits and his hatred of the people who gave him money to make films and then stole them back before he had finished them - all of these seem reflected in this movie. All the mixed-up attitudes to life are on display in this film, but only as a subtext. It's perfectly possible to watch the film as an exciting thriller but the more you know about the director, the more fascinating an insight into his psyche it becomes. It ranks alongside The Wild Bunch, Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid and the hugely undervalued Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia in his filmography and that's not a comparison I make lightly. This is truly essential filmmaking and a movie which will be talked and argued about as long as people watch films.
The transfer on this new Blu Ray is, in a word, a travesty. Without exaggerating, I think it's one of the most horrible things I've ever witnessed on a Blu Ray disc. Everything about the image, apart from the aspect ratio, is wrong, wrong, wrong. The image is too bright throughout, ruining much of John Coquillon's lighting, and the contrast has been boosted way too high. Whether or not the colours are acceptable is, in the circumstances, difficult to gauge. The level of detail is well below that of the USA Blu Ray issued a few weeks ago by MGM. The problem would appear to be that the MGM Blu Ray was sourced from the Criterion HD remaster while the transfer under review comes from a theatrical print. However, having seen the film theatrically on a number of occasions, I certainly don't recall it looking anything like this.
The sound isn't, thankfully, a problem. The 2.0 soundtrack sounds absolutely fine with clear dialogue and a nice balance between music and effects during the last half hour. There's also the option to listen to an isolated track of Jerry Fielding's excellent score.
The best special edition of Straw Dogs remains, for my money, the Criterion DVD which not only has an excellent transfer but contains a commentary track from Stephen Prince which is one of the best that I have ever listened to. Despite the numerous extra features, there's nothing on this Fremantle Blu Ray to match it. Most of the bonuses are transferred direct from the 2002 DVD release including the two commentary tracks; one from the "Peckinpah Posse" and another from Peckinpah's long-time assistant Katy Haber. Both of these are pretty good, the latter being the more impressive; Katy's comments are insightful and fascinating. The commentary by the group of Peckinpah fans - Garner Simmons, Paul Seydor, David Weddle - was the first and by far the best of their efforts. I lost all sympathy with these guys after the travesty of the Seydor cut of Pat Garrett but their comments here are genuinely interesting. They don't have the weight and originality supplied by Prince however.
In addition to the two commentary tracks, there are substantial interviews with Susan George, producer Daniel Melnick and Garner Simmons. These are shot on video and of variable picture and sound quality, although this doesn't seriously affect the content. Susan George is, as you'd expect, the most interesting of the three and her account of working on the film is full of interesting material. No great surprises for Peckinpah fans but she's lively and often funny. Daniel Melnick is a little slow and guarded at first but he becomes more interesting as the interview goes on. Garner Simmons is very engaging and full of stories about how he and Peckinpah got along when he wrote the first book on the director. Each interview lasts about 25 minutes.
The other features are all just as valuable. The 'On Location' feature is a 10 minute slot for a local South West TV news programme and it's a bit of archive film to be cherished. Not only do we get Peckinpah gently patronising the interviewer, we are offered a look at some of the location filming. The interviewer, who is rather like a totally straight Alan Partridge, gets in the way of everything and is clearly out of his depth. The stand-out moment is when he tries to interview Hoffman, entirely unaware that he is standing in the middle of the shot that he is preventing being filmed. This little bit of history is damaged beyond repair and the last minute of sound is missing but fans of the film won't care a jot about that.
There is an extensive stills gallery, featuiring location shots, lobby cards and publicity for the film, and the original US trailer which stands up rather well. There are also 3 TV spots and 2 radio spots which are, as is the way of these things, rather repetitive.
As if this wasn't enough there is an extensive collection of text materials which feature correspondence between Peckinpah and Harold Pinter, exchanges between Melnick and the BBFC, the full text of the various BBFC statements on the film and a history of the censored versions of the film. There are also filmographies for the main participants and several pages of trivia about the film. You will not find the much sought after pub scene on the disc since all reliable reports suggest that it vanished years ago - although efforts to locate it continue - but there is a page of text explaining what's missing. It's this scene which provides the famous cover image of Hoffman toting the shotgun.
Finally, much rueful hilarity can be found in the "Before and After" feature which tries to persuade us that this Fremantle Blu Ray features a stunning new restoration of the film.
Although the special features are interesting and worthwhile, the poor transfer prevents me from recommending this disc to anyone. The USA Blu Ray is a much better visual experience. Better still, try to get hold of a copy of the Criterion edition which really is a disc to be proud of.