Straw Dogs

(UK - 1971)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Susan George, Del Henney, Peter Vaughan, Ken Hutchinson, David Warner, Sally Thomsett
Genre: Thriller/Drama
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Screenplay: Sam Peckinpah & David Zelag Goodman based on Gordon Williams novel The Siege of Trencher's Farm
Cinematography: John Coquillon
Composer: Jerry Fielding
Runtime: 118 minutes

"What does she think I'm doing here, playing games? What is this, grammar school?" - David Summer

When looking for a tense film, look no further than Straw Dogs. It's little exaggeration to say this film builds tension in every frame until it reaches an unparalleled level and there's no turning back from the violence. The film utilizes common two scenarios - the outsider and the troubled uncommunicative marriage - but develops both sides of each so well at the same time it leaves you constantly guessing and often surprised, if not disgusted.

The film is set in a small English town, though it would be no different if it was an English scholar in Hicksville, USA. David Summer (Dustin Hoffman) is the scholar, a violence (Vietnam War) avoiding astrophysicist with a grant to finish his treatise. He's an intellectual among undereducated simpletons, but that doesn't help him function better than the others on their turf because his knowledge doesn't include their ways or psyche.

David's attractive wife Amy Summer (Susan George) spent most of her life in this area with her now deceased father. To say the least, her and her husband aren't much of a pair. He's all about getting his work done, and his complex equations require full attention. She's all about getting attention, "requiring" other people's assistance when she does do some work. As with David & the locals, education is a major barrier between the two. Amy's main asset is her looks, but David would prefer a wife that can give him a good chess match. In a one upsman type way, that's what Amy spends her time doing.

Amy is all about playing games. Somewhere along the line she realized that children are the masters of getting attention, so she decided to adopt their ways. She does it better than they do because she's intelligent in comparison and has a body she can flaunt. However, she doesn't realize that the main reason acting out is successful for kids is the adults figure they don't know any better and can't be independent because they are so young. An Amy game is changing a + to a - in one of David's equations that takes up the whole chalkboard, which obviously isn't going to impress David.

The giggly local degenerate slackers that are about her age are seemingly more of a match for Amy, if even one. They are led by Amy's old boyfriend Charlie Venner (Del Henney). As soon as she sees him again, she tricks David into hiring him to help Norman Scutt's (Ken Hutchinson) crew fix the roof of their barn. Venner is the natural leader because he's the calmest, smartest, and most commanding of these hellraisers. However, Norman is on his low level and resents a life of being second to Charlie. All of them resent David because he's not like them, has a future, and most of all has a hot wife they feel should belong to one of them.

Gruff 50ish drunken ruffian Tom Hedden (Peter Vaughan) is the model for the unambitious futureless young men of the hostile town. One of the funniest parts is when the vicar silences Tom.

Vicar: Nothing works better with whiskey.
Tom: I do
Vicar: You've never worked in your life, Tom!

Tom's daughter Janice (Sally Thomsett) is basically Amy Jr. She copies all Amy's tactics, but they don't have any effect on the locals because they see her as a little sister type, and thus don't notice or care that she's bloomed.

All of the locals are off kilter in their own way, but big oafish Henry Niles (David Warner) stands out among the bunch as the verified town fool. He was the butt of all the jokes until David arrived. Tom's crew has a great resentment for him, but for the most part everyone keeps their distance because he's not right in the head and doesn't have any concept of his own strength.

Henry was supposed to be put away for what he did to a girl, but they have their own rules here. Logic, reasoning, and human nature are three of the films key themes. All three are largely determined by the laws of society, which are different everywhere.

One thing that makes the film great is Peckinpah knows how to show things without being obvious and without telegraphing his future directions. The scene where David walks in bar just after we meet him is a perfect example. Aside from ordering a couple packs of "Any American cigarettes", David is rarely the center of the scene. We know they must think he's a goofball because he just looks and sounds like he doesn't belong, honking his nose and walking in front of a guy that's starting to throw a dart, but we get no proof of this here. In most of the scene we see Tom developed with David in the background looking shocked, befuddled, uncomfortable, and jumpy. Then David starts playing it cool, so there's reason to believe he can fit in and no reason to believe the locals won't accept him.

In a way, you can't fault David's effort in trying to fit in. Though an otherworldly isolationist, David doesn't throw his hands up in the air or embrace his weirdness. Instead, he literally does everything logical to win their good nature from buying them something they like (booze) to engaging in one of their activities (hunting). That's David's whole problem though; he only operates with logic and reason like everything is a math problem. That might have worked where he came from, but the people he's around now are very elemental. Their needs and desires are fairly obvious, and they lack the upbringing not to act on them, but David is incapable of sensing the danger because his whole life has been governed by a different set of rules.

The tension in the film mounts and mounts because (excluding Henry since he's off in his own world) no one agrees and everyone thinks they are going to be able to change the other person or somehow make the situation better for themselves. David constantly misjudges the situation because thinks he can get through to the locals. He takes converting them to his way of solving problems as a challenge. Amy's challenge is getting David to focus on her rather than his work. The locals don't have the initiative for a challenge, but there's not much to do here so they have to raise hell and joke around to prevent total monotony.

Peckinpah was already one of the censors' biggest enemies for taking cinematic violence to new levels in The Wild Bunch. I'll never understand their line of thinking that showing violence unrealistically is the way to go. Green blood just makes one laugh and dismiss, while seeing a whole blown in someone's chest with pieces flying out, if nothing else, makes me know I don't want to get shot. Peckinpah's films have violent climaxes, but as a whole aren't even overly violent. Peter Greenaway made one of the best statements I've seen when it comes to explaining the reason for this type of violence, and the hypocrisy of it being the "evil" type.

"Many quite popular films are filled with violence. I think the difference between those and my films is that I show the cause and effect of violent activity. It's not a Donald Duck situation where he get a brick in the back of the head and gets up and walks away in the next frame. Mine have violence which keeps Donald Duck in the hospital for six months and creates a trauma which he will remember for the rest of his life."

At the heart of Straw Dogs is a rape scene intercut brilliantly with a hunting scene. Horrifically and elegantly, both show the same thing, the total collapse of a myth that has profound, traumatic, and course reversing results. Peckinpah's problems over violence were nothing in comparison to what he encountered with the rape. The film was banned in England until just recently, which may or may not be worse than how it was cut in many countries to remove all portions that alluded to Amy enjoying the rape since either way you weren't seeing Straw Dogs. In addition to the censors, feminist groups condemned the picture and branded Bloody Sam one of the foremost misogynists of his time.

Though David is the central character and Peckinpah is a "misogynist", the film actually doesn't take sides between Amy and him, and Amy is the most human character. Women are a problem for most men, with David & Peckinpah being no different. Though Amy is sometimes frustrating for not explaining herself, not that she understanding herself or the effect her actions have, David is the most frustrating character because you feel like he should know better and should be able to figure a lot more out than he does. All his knowledge only serves to make him unable to function in this society. Also, the extent of his cowardice is pretty amazing. Their cat being hung in the closet is the best example of how David runs from all his problems. He can't even warn Amy to spare her the horrible sight, and all he does to prevent future menacing is lock the windows and doors. Amy wants him to be a man and ask the workers, but David comes out with the gem that it could have been anybody passing by.

The general problem I see with groups that criticize a film is that they view the situation as an absolute. Amy not wearing a bra, which obviously wasn't exactly uncommon in 1971 (though the people in this small town weren't used to it, it was something she brought back from America), is for the sole purpose of getting attention. Usually the result is like the introduction of the Amy character where the pokies are an eye magnet and, oh yeah, she does actually have a face too. Sometimes attention has consequences, and in this case some of the men that coveted her went too far. That doesn't mean every woman should wear a bra. If anything, it shows that sometimes you have to do something you don't want to in order to alleviate interest and lessen the chance of conflict. But the point is not the cause, but rather the effect. The film is disgusting to many people because it makes us desire Amy just as the men in the town do, and then forces us to endure consequences of it we don't believe are linked or we are capable of.

The rape scene that caused such a stir is not at all exploitive and only offensive in that rape in and of itself is, at the very least, close to the most offensive thing one can do. As usual, the controversy is in the wrong place. What's questionable is the very definition of rape, though that's not what Peckinpah is trying to get at here. Charlie uses force on Amy, rips her clothes off, and sticks it in. That's rape. But like everything else in this film, it's not so simple.

Amy has been playing a game for attention all along. In her mind, what's going to get David to wake up and give her the amount she feels she deserves is competition. That's why she gets him to hire Charlie at the beginning of the film. Her key activity is when she not at all accidentally flashes her panties to the workers as she's getting out of the car and then comes storming in telling David they're practically licking her body in hopes that he'll become jealous. Yes, it's sick, but Charlie raping her is a game to her.

It's a game that she gets more than she bargained for in. The first sign that he's not playing is when she slaps him to "fight him off" and he decks her with a right hand. I realize full well that the she said no but meant yes argument is, at the very least, close to the most offensive one can make. That said, the way the scene is done and the way Susan George plays it that Amy is role playing and pushing the scene as far as she can without actually getting seriously hurt again. She is willing to get hurt to the extent that it's worth fighting back to show the man he's a disgusting individual and this is a violation. This part is more clear in Peckinpah's subsequent great film Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, which repeats the fighting portion of the rape minus any connotation that Isela Vega has any interest in or desire for roaming thug biker Kris Kristopherson. Amy is also willing to get hurt to prove that, unlike her husband, she'll at least try to fight back, though she soon decides it's better to give in and survive.

What's startling is when she lets go of the façade and turns it into and out and out love making scene. People want to argue that this is where she was acting and she did this to protect herself, but the major threat is over before she does this and rapists don't require that their victims enjoy themselves. Charlie makes it clear that he doesn't want to hurt her and has been doing all the work without complained about anything but her resistance. Because he works there, likes her, has desired her for years, and is trying to put one over on David, I believe he's not there with the intention of harming her and will warn her before he does any serious damage, but obviously there's always a danger.

The scene is not out to justify Charlie's actions in any way, but to fully illustrate the extent of Amy's problem. That's why the hardest part of the scene to watch is the sex, which isn't violent and has the camera focusing on Amy's face. We've seen lots of movies where a character's addiction is so strong that they degrade and disgrace themselves in order to get their fix. This is no different except it's a new scenario and it's not filmed in a manner that makes it painfully obvious. Amy's addiction though is clearly attention, and she's so desperate to fill that void that she's not considering it a rape. Instead, she's dreaming of her husband wishing it was him that put aside his activities to have sex with her. Both Amy and Charlie are sick, but her reaction makes her seem sicker because, even with an old boyfriend, one can't imagine how the victim could take pleasure from this scenario.

Where it becomes a clear-cut rape is when Norman shows up pointing a rifle at Charlie. Again, Peckinpah is not spelling his scenario out at all, so we can't be sure how much we should dislike Charlie. Was this the plan all along? Is Charlie saddened now because Amy's affection has made him believe she still loves him? Or does Charlie not like sharing that much, especially when he's not finished himself? To Peckinpah it doesn't matter, we should dislike them all and degrees of dislike are of no importance, which ultimately is the root of people being so shocked and offended by the film.

What I think is clear about Norman's rape is how differently Amy acts. Upon recognition, she's instantly hyper and nervous, screaming "No!" She has no interest in Norman and he's not necessary to her little game, especially duplicating what Charlie has done right after. Here, she's passionate only about trying to resist, but by the time she sees it coming she's in no position to fight. Traumatized and betrayed, Charlie's previous action now becomes rape to her, and the more offensive of the two. One reason she was more open to Charlie than she should have been is there's some ambiguous mention of her wanting him to take care of her sexually in the old days, and him not being able to get the job done. Here he finally does, but in a way that crushes her by showing she's not the least bit special.

David wasn't at the house because he went with Charlie, Norman, and co. on a hunting expedition to try to ease the tension. He's never hunted before, but alone in the serenity of nature he finds it rather amusing (lucky for Sam it's "okay" to like hunting). That is, until he realizes he's really alone. He didn't see their trick, leaving him to get Amy alone, coming just like Amy didn't see Norman coming. This matching of this rape scene with David shooting the birds is brilliant. The segment shows that everyone has their limit, and there's a cruel sense of irony to it with both finding pleasure initially and moreso than they or we expected, but it giving in with the revelation that they've been screwed over. But it runs much deeper than getting crossed; their myth that they were in control and the situation was improving simply collapses.

David is, perhaps, the character that's most incapable of learning. To fit in with these people you have to be one of them, and that's something David can't and would not want to do. All he wanted to do was get along with his neighbors to avoid conflict, but after they played him for the fool (and boy if he had any idea of the extent…) he totally gives up on them, rejects them by firing them, and slowly turns inwardly violent. All of which makes the situation much more likely to explode than if David never tried to be these guys friends.

The hunting/rape segment yields an identical result for David & Amy, both know they are done with everyone that was working at their house. That doesn't bring them any closer together; in fact, it drives them apart. Amy fully understands what the locals are capable of, so she becomes like David was, doing everything she can to avoid conflict. She doesn't tell him about the rape to protect him and perhaps their marriage, but it leaves them both exposed because he still doesn't understand that they can never fit in there and will be in great danger sooner or later if they don't leave.

The final 45 minutes of the film are set up in one superbly edited church party scene. Despite tricks a singer and so on, this is not a pleasant time for Amy because the rapists are among the many guests and she can't get that awful incident out of her head. She grows increasingly tense, uneasy, and distressed. Again, the look and expressions of George, who does her finest acting in this film, illustrate it. This time she's aided by incredibly brief flashbacks to the rape. At the same time, the little Amy wannabe Janice, who unlike David doesn't benefit from not knowing the result of Amy's games, decides that some man is going to pay attention to her. When David once again fails to show any interest, she gets Henry to leave with her, resulting in Peckinpah's homage to Of Mice and Men.

Peckinpah's films show the worst side of human nature, that we are drawn to acting in an offensive and violent manner even when we are trying to escape from that very course of action. No one knows whether Henry did anything to Janice, just that she's "missing" because they left together. Instead of having everyone go look for her, Tom tells his son Bobby (Len Jones) to get his friends and go look while the adults sit around the bar getting loaded. When the find out Henry is at David's in need of a doctor, they go there and try to make sure he's badly in need of a doctor, if not a coroner.

David is the only one that tries to get any information out of Henry, and he's interrupted almost immediately (though Henry is probably too shaken up to talk anyway). Tom has reason to be concerned, but her brother Bobby, who is still out looking for her, is the only one that's paid any attention to Janice. For Tom, Norman, Charlie, and the other delinquents, it's all about seizing their opportunity to finally get Henry. Like David, he can never fit in and they dislike him for it. They also have a great resentment toward him because he didn't do any jail time when he should have (because he's too clueless to understand what he did), while Norman did a good amount of time for an offense that's relatively minor in comparison.

War drags everyone in, even those that tried to choose non participation. David finally decides to stop running and make his stand. Henry is at his house because David was actually paying attention to his wife, but doing so on a dark foggy night, he nailed the staggering outcast with his car. David actually cares about Henry's wellbeing, while Amy wants him out for reasons she doesn't divulge to him (he's a proven threat to all women and Tom will be after him). David's main priorities though are to his house simply because it's his, which seems ridiculous until you consider that almost every war is over territory. Amy wanted David to prove his manhood all along, but now she's against it because she'll gain nothing from this conflict.

The siege on the Summer's house argues that human nature is primal and man has a propensity for anger that quickly escalates to irreversible violence. The attackers act because they want to, they can, and they figure they might as well. It's hilarious how the rapists are ready to lynch Henry just for walking out with his hand on Janice. David has no idea why they are there, so for once he can't act logically because he lacks any pertinent information. He's simply forced to act. What's funny is that he stands up for things that aren't worth it, and though his philosophy has totally changed his propensity to follow it illogically is identical, looking the other way at Henry trying to attack his wife and continuing to fight the raiders (not that he has a choice there other than trying to take out Henry then or later) as soon as he eliminated the immediate threat to Amy. In Peckinpah's films though, especially Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, the man is driven to the end more by the mission itself than any practical or logical purpose to seeing it through.

The one thing that's consistent during the siege is David & Amy both have to act alone because they can neither communicate nor agree. One moral of the story is that the changes you want don't necessarily improve relationships. Though I certainly haven't focused on it, the characters had enough in common to get along, even if not necessarily positive traits. Particularly in the case of David & Amy, the change is actually what drives them apart, which just adds to the effect of Peckinpah's satire of the husband and wife constantly struggling with one another.

Peckinpah's direction here is quite simply some of the best ever. Peckinpah puts forth his material with such individualism and commitment. It feels so personal and authoritative, yet he refuses to give any easy answers and forces you to contemplate it, and perhaps want to regurgitate it, endlessly. You always picture him as a bull in a china shop, yet this film has a great deal of subtlety and mystery. It's so gripping, tense, and exciting (though the impatient viewer that just wants things to happen will be bored with the first hour) with so many issues swirling and problems mounting that you just know something interesting is eventually going to explode.

Peckinpah's films are always great technically. Jerry Fielding's score is the only thing that earner the film any award nominations. Fielding, who also did the scores for Peckinpah masterpieces The Wild Bunch & Alfredo Garcia, is a perfect Peckinpah composer. He comes up with interesting music that fits the images and has some mood and feeling, but doesn't hammer anything home or steal the scene ala the incredibly overrated John Williams. Cinematographer John Coquillon was unjustly overlooked. The way he takes the beautiful Cornish countryside and makes it forlorn and inimical, incorporating beauty only at the most ironic times, is really exceptional.

The editing is simply masterful. In particular, the use of straight cuts to draw parallels between the current and bad memories, as well as showing simultaneous events. It's almost all straight cuts, but it's not at all abrupt and has a great flow in spite of these linking scenes having just a few frames of flashback before we go back to the effect these thoughts are having on Amy. The way it's cut and the great shots from Coquillon that are used make Peckinpah's ideas equate.




* Copyright 2002 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *