Few films manage to push as many buttons as “Straw Dogs” does 40 years after its release. Sam Peckinpah’s film is not in the business of entertaining you, enlightening you, or teaching you a lesson. It does not want you to cheer for the hero, although you might. “Straw Dogs” is populated with characters that we actually despise to varying degrees. And yet its genius is that you may find yourself understanding their actions, but then feeling uneasy about yourself for doing so.
As the film opens, David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) and his nubile wife Amy (Susan George) have moved to Amy’s hometown in the English countryside to escape the troubles in America. David, a mathematician, has been given a research grant, and he needs peace and quiet to think and work. Unfortunately for him, the local ne’er-do-wells, led by Amy’s girlhood flame, Charlie (Del Henney), volunteer their services to fix up a garage outside on the Sumner homestead, but spend most of their time yukking it up and ogling the obviously braless Amy (it can get cold in the countryside, you know). They see the nebbish David as an outsider, and take every opportunity to subtly mock him, even as they address him formally as “Mr. Sumner.”
None of this sits too well with Amy, who also makes vague references about how she couldn’t understand her husband’s inability to “take a stand” at home in America. The harassment and bullying leads her to try and goad David into pushing back against the ruffians, but he refuses to neither outright accuse them nor stoop to their level, which really gets Amy’s goat. Both of them snipe at each other passive aggressively, until one day the garage crew invites David out on a hunt, even though they surely know he’s likely never fired a shotgun in his life.
It’s here where the movie takes a turn down a very dark road indeed, in a scene that has polarized viewers for 40 years. Leaving David alone in his hunting spot, Charlie heads back to the Sumner cottage to confront Amy. He forces sex upon her, but after initially resisting, Amy appears to embrace her former lover and now attacker. Peckinpah cuts between shots of Charlie removing his shirt and David doing the same. It’s almost as if Amy is in a state of shock, and the only way she can cope is by imagining it’s her husband on top of her instead of Charlie--or is Amy secretly wishing David were more like Charlie... or the other way around? The scene is then interrupted by another member of Charlie’s gang, aiming a shotgun at the couple. He forces Charlie at gunpoint to pin Amy down and let him have his brutal way with her. The second rape was cut out of the original American release in 1971, and has been restored on this unrated edition of “Straw Dogs.” If it wasn’t clear that Amy is an unwilling participant before, it certainly is now.
I had forgotten how fast the second half of the film moves after that agonizing scene. David and Amy attend a church function where the village idiot, Henry Niles (David Warner) is led off by a sexually precocious young girl. When Niles tries to escape, he finds himself accidentally on the other end of David and Amy’s fender, and the couple take him in.
Meanwhile, the town hoodlums, led by the young girl’s father, Tom, are good and liquored up, and itching to put Henry Niles in his place, thinking he’s “had his way” with the girl. They go looking for him at the Sumner’s cottage, and the film finds its way to a violent conclusion as David defends his household through any improvised method he can, including but not limited to boiling whiskey, fire, bludgeoning, and a bear trap. The picture ends with David metaphorically commenting that he doesn’t know his way home.
What does Sam Peckinpah want from the audience in this movie? What can we learn? The first time I watched the movie, some 15 years ago, I remember being disturbed by the movie, yet there was a feeling of catharsis as Dustin Hoffman picks off the bad guys at the end of the film. They deserved it. Good on you, Dustin, you’re a real man now.
But time has a way of changing one’s experience of a film. Now, I see David Sumner in the same way the locals do, as a priggish, arrogant outsider who subtly mocks what he perceives to be his wife’s lack of intelligence. Amy acts out, pushing David’s buttons, and during the climactic scene, is willing to throw poor Henry Niles to the wolves. Charlie, for all his faults, is the only one of his gang that even attempts to reason with David before the final Siege on Trencher’s Farm, as it were. And he winds up defending Amy with a shotgun blast to one of his sidekicks later during the fight.
What Peckinpah does brilliantly is coerce the audience into, if not agreeing with David or Amy (or even Charlie), then at least understanding the reasons for their behavior. Unfortunately, once that happens, you’ve just implicated yourself. It’s hard to leave “Straw Dogs” feeling good about anyone in the movie, let alone yourself.
Incidentally, I also find it interesting that two of the film’s key plot points, the rape, and an accidental killing, remain unknown by David and the village gang, respectively. How different might things have been if Amy had shared her trauma with David, and if he took the time to listen to her? Or if David knew Niles had really killed a young girl, even if it was accidental? Perhaps one of the movie’s true themes is that emotional and physical violence may be lessened if people communicated with one another more effectively.
“STRAW DOGS” ON BLU-RAY
To coincide with the theatrical release of Rod Lurie’s remake of “Straw Dogs,” MGM/Fox is releasing the original film on Blu-ray for the first time. The picture looks very good, for a 40-year-old movie shot on location in rural England. I also noticed the music for the first time. Jerry Fielding’s score reminded me a bit of Aaron Copland’s ballet, “Billy the Kid,” and specifically the “Open Prairie” cue, but with more subtle turns toward dissonance than Copland allowed in his more populist works. Fielding was honored with the sole Oscar nomination for “Straw Dogs,” for Best Score.
The Blu-ray of “Straw Dogs” includes some TV spots, and a trailer that contains the unintentionally hilarious line, “Sam Peckinpah unleashes Dustin Hoffman.” Unfortunately, there are no other special features included on the disc; as complicated and difficult a film as this is, supplemental material is almost a requirement. Fortunately, the Criterion Collection released the film on DVD years ago-- although it is now out of print, you might be able to find used copies for sale online, or for checkout at your local library. That edition includes oodles of supplemental material, including a thoughtful audio commentary, and an interview with actress Susan George.