Back Comments (4) Share:
I’ve decided to write this particular review under the assumption that most readers have already seen Straw Dogs because there isn’t a lot for me to talk about if I’m limited by spoilers. I also don’t think that the plot of this particular film matters all that much outside of subtext, themes, performances, and Sam Peckinpah’s skills as a director. The spoilers that follow are relatively vague, but if you intend on experiencing this particular film, which is a great one, entirely blind your first time out you might want to skip this review. Thank you for understanding.

Straw Dogs

Feature


Straw Dogs is arguably among the most accomplished motion picture meditations on violence ever. I know this because I’ve fallen victim to more heated arguments about Straw Dogs than any other movie, and these interactions have only strengthened my resolve. Director Sam Peckinpah’s refusal to expressly state his opinion through the proper text has lead most viewers to not bother reading further to the less ambiguous subtext. However, unlike other ambiguous meditations on violence like Taxi Driver or Fight Club, which feature satisfying, even entertaining surface content, Straw Dogs burns viewers that don’t watching for implied meaning and themes with what appears to be a verification of masculine ideals. And it’s hard to blame anyone for misreading Peckinpah’s intent, especially those familiar with his hyper-masculine, often ostensibly misogynistic filmography. In fact, the more the viewer knows about the filmmaker himself, the bleaker the moral of this particular story appears. As an infamous alcoholic, likely manic-depressive malcontent, Peckinpah’s violent, male-centric fables have always been difficult to separate from his personality. Even Peckinpah’s defenders and fans have a tendency to argue over the meaning behind his antagonistic habits, and many find Straw Dogs the most difficult subject to agree on. The confusion is understandable, but all of Peckinpah’s best films are defined by equivocation, and his character’s violent actions are often justified and condemned in the same breath.

But we have the benefit of the record to help us understand the film’s intended reading, and Peckinpah was occasionally coaxed onto the record in reference to his films by talented interviewers. The key distinction Peckinpah intended to imply was that, despite his central framing in the story, David is the antagonist, and Amy, who on initial viewing appears to be a mixed representation of feminine contradictions and the damsel in distress, is the protagonist. In some ways, specifically during the climax, the locals fill a roll similar to that of George Romero’s zombies, or the disasters surrounding a Roland Emmerich movie – dangerous forces of nature that force the major characters to deal with more conceptual villainy. Peckinpah has also described the film as a meditation on violence, from which we can surmise refers to the violence of the Vietnam era the film was made in. As critic Joshua Clover says in his essay found in the liner booklet that comes with the Criterion Collection release (which can be read here) ‘David Sumner and his British bride Amy are on leave from the Sixties’. Peckinpah is concerned with the effects of violence, not the morals attributed to violence. I would normally ascribe simple defensive behavior to Peckinpah’s assertions of his intentions, like when M. Knight Shyamalan insisted that The Happening was somehow hilarious on purpose, despite being on record previously describing the film as dark and disturbing. But Peckinpah never once demonstrated a concern for what other people thought over his career, so there’s no good reason to doubt his confirmations.

Straw Dogs
One major factor detractors often overlook in decrying the apparent pro-vigilante, pro-violence stance of the film is the fact that David never knows that Amy was raped. His violence is spurned by frustration at continuing attacks on his manhood. Minus the rape of his wife, which he doesn’t know about, David isn’t avenging anything – he’s reacting to exaggerated bullying. The only vigilantes in the film are the thugs trying to lynch Henry Niles (David Warner), who David has chosen to protect for the relatively arbitrary fact that the threat to Henry is the straw that breaks the camel’s back (he also doesn’t know that Henry has accidentally killed someone himself). Like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, whether he knows it or not, David has found a ‘socially acceptable’ excuse to act out his frustration. He’s throwing a temper tantrum. This all happens despite Amy’s cries for reason, which can be attributed to a less than magnanimous point of view on her part (seemingly verified, as Henry attacks her in the chaos). Yes, David is ‘valiantly’ defending Henry’s life, and as things escalate, his and Amy’s safety. But assuming we’re experiencing the events through Amy’s eyes; we aren’t meant to be rooting for David during the siege, rather, we should be taken aback by his reaction.  From this angle we should feel even more sorry for Amy, who is left in the hands of an awakened psychopath as the end credits roll.

I suppose I should stop beating around the bush, though, and actually discuss the central, and notorious rape scene. The very presence of a rape scene in any movie will drum up controversy, and arguments will always be levied against the ‘need’ for such scenes to exist at all. Assuming we’re looking at the film with the knowledge that Amy is the protagonist, I’d argue this particular rape scene is necessary as a representation of the penultimate attack upon her person (short of murder). Rape is the logical extension of the threat, and Sam Peckinpah is the last guy to look away from the dark results. The irony behind Amy’s treatment in Straw Dogs is that the attention Peckinpah pays her represents the most attention he ever paid a female character in any of his films. She is his feminist icon. One analysis in favour of the rape scene and its uncompromising tone would be the argument that most of Peckinpah’s male protagonists go through similar physical hardships. Perhaps the scene is simply Amy’s trial by fire. Within the realms of his grim world-view this skewed reflection of reality almost makes sense.

Straw Dogs
The longest running argument concerning the scene seems to have less to do with its existence, and more to do with the question of Amy’s possible pleasure during the rape. This is a matter of perception, which I’ve come to assume is the point. I’ve personally tipped back and forth on the issue, and come to think that it’s certainly possible that Amy has lingering feelings towards Charlie, but the more logical assumption would be that Amy is feigning pleasure to avoid the more aggressive violence protest seems to bring her. The secondary rape, which cannot be mistaken for pleasurable, never seems to be a part of the modern debate, even though it is the part of the scene that was heavily censored, and is infinitely more brutal. It’s strange that the conversation boils down to such pedantic specifics of whether the person being raped is enjoying it or not. For the sake of argument, and looking at this from the most objective angle I can muster, I’d be interested to know if those most offended by the possibility of Amy enjoying the sexual assault feel the same about similar sequences of sexual assault/rape/unwanted and aggressive sexual advances leading to affection/enjoyment in other films. Is Maria Bello’s and Viggo Mortensen’s rape-tuned-consensual sex in David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence equally offensive? How about the women of Crash (the Cronenberg one), and Michael Haneke’s La Pianiste, who actively seek sexual violence? Is it acceptable for filmmakers to present strong women that find themselves ‘broken’ by equally strong men, as occurs in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or Lina Wertmüller’s Swept Away (or the remake for that matter)? Should Alejandro Jodorowsky use rape as a spiritual metaphor in El Topo, or Jeff Kanew use it as a joke in Revenge of the Nerds? And what about Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, Alex de la Iglesia’s Perdita Durango, Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter, any of Sean Connery’s Bond movies, or even the most popular movie of all time – Gone with the Wind?

Also for the sake of argument, let’s state with utter certainty that Amy enjoyed, and even invited the first part of the assault, that Peckinpah is lauding vigilantism, and that David does the right thing, and is dubbed a real man through his actions. Assuming all of this still doesn’t rob the film of its technical perfection. It lacks the scope of Peckinpah’s westerns, but it’s shot and cut with skill, and studious precision. The opening sequence expertly sets up the major characters within seconds through simple compositions and almost wordless performances. We immediately know that Amy oozes sex appeal, that the men of the town notice, and that shrinking violet David notices that the men of the town notice. Soon enough, however, Peckinpah unveils his sometimes subliminal editing techniques. These quick cuts, along with a series of extreme angles increase in frequency as the characters begin to unravel, beginning the moment David discovers the dead cat. Then during the centerpiece rape scene, the often-stagnant camera wiggles loose, and shakes with the violence. The viewer also witnesses parts of the attack from Amy’s point of view, where the focus being to shift to blurs, and images of David are quickly interspliced with images of her suffering. Peckinpah repeats this quick cut motif when David tires to kiss her, and kicks into overdrive during the church party sequence to signify Amy’s anxiety attack. From here almost no single shot lasts more than 10 seconds (I’m guessing if one did the math the average shot length would be closer to three seconds), which leads us into the siege. During the siege the quick fire cutting continues (the cutting is made more chaotic by breaking character and camera movement with opposing movement), angles begin to go Dutch, and compositions move violently between still wide frames, and jittery, handheld close-ups. During the rape scene Peckinpah also introduces his trademarked slow motion, but only briefly. As the violence begins to escalate he’s sure to capture every agonizing millisecond of the most explosive and sudden attacks, reminding the audience that slow motion isn’t an arbitrary means to excite his audience in a Sam Peckinpah film.

Straw Dogs
Casting Dustin Hoffman was particularly clever given the actor’s brief pre-1971 history. Hoffman’s two biggest roles (of only a handful) at the time were Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate and Enrico "Ratso" Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy. Benjamin Braddock was the angst-ridden, sexually confused voice of a nation of young men, who found the courage to man-up and get the girl by the end of the film. Rizzo was a pathetic, frustrated, impotent creature that signified the most extreme failings of the hippy era. Hoffman wears the weight of both characters like an albatross, and crafts David as a paranoid, limp-wristed, passive aggressive little cauldron of misplaced frustration. He’s the prototype for the hypocrite ex-hippy, and in some ways a center point between Benjamin and Rizzo. The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy and Straw Dogs’ endings also mirror each other – all three films end with Hoffman sitting in a vehicle (twice a bus, one time a car) as it drives into an enigmatic future, all futures many have considered representative of the then current state of the United States. Susan George’s performance is particularly underrated, largely because her lead protagonist status is an unfortunate secret. I don’t know if Peckinpah meant for the film to be so easily misread his hero/villain dynamic, but George appears to have anticipated the issue, because her performance works as both the childish tart, and as the put upon heroine. She’s actually so good as Amy that her otherwise middling career is confusing. Tales of her mistreatment at the hands of Peckinpah are legendary, and often used as proof of his misogynistic intentions, which leads me to wonder if perhaps she just worked best under extreme pressure.

Straw Dogs

Video


Even fans of Straw Dogs may be wondering why anyone would want to double (triple, quadruple) dip for this new Blu-ray version. Straw Dogs is a grimly lit, grain heavy, desaturated production. The short answer is that the differences between this and the Criterion Collection DVD release are negligible, and each transfer has some advantage over the other. This release is certainly sharper, and generally features superior details. Minor textures, and easily overlooked details like the run in Amy’s stocking, or a tear rolling over her cheek, are quite welcome. It also does away with many of the minor compression issues and digital artifacts. This release appears generally grainier than Criterion’s, but it’s more likely that the increased sharpness simply reveals more of what was smoothed over on standard definition DVD. Overall dirt and minor print damage is pretty close between the two transfers, including small flecks of white that appear in practically the exact same spot. The footage of David hunting is probably the dirtiest in the entire film, and surprisingly enough the super dark, fog-filled siege, though inconsistent, is largely quite clear. The improved separation of elements on the 1080p transfer is important given the homogenous quality of the palette, and general softness of the backgrounds on the DVD. The colour-scheme is largely defined by browns and pale yellows, highlighted by cool greens, and rich reds. From what my eyes can see this 1080p transfer is generally more severe than the Criterion release, which is good for the most part (I prefer the more mustardy yellows of David and Amy’s furniture), and improves overall contrast levels, but leads to some rather uncomfortably red skin tones. Black and white levels are also much more pronounced on this new release, occasionally leading to some minor blow-outs and edge-enhancements.

Straw Dogs

Audio


From what I understand this marks the first time Straw Dog’s monoraul soundtrack has been remixed into 5.1 surround. Most fans of the film might fear that this 5.1 remix features a bunch of awkward aural movement, and additional, artificial-sounding surround effects. Well I’ve got some good news – there is very little difference between this new mix and the original mono audio as heard on the Criterion release. For the most part the stereo and surround channels are left empty, with even Jerry Fielding’s anti-melodic score mostly occupying the center speaker (unlike most recent 5.1 remixes from Blue Underground, which spread the music while maintaining mostly centered effects and dialogue). Motor vehicles do move slightly left or right of center, gunshots echo outward, and the overwhelming noise of the church scene bleeds subtly around the room. The biggest and loudest use of the extra channels comes the two times David cranks bagpipe music through his stereo. The uncompressed nature of the track doesn’t make a whole lot of difference given the quality of the original tracks, but the loudest sounds, such as shattering windows, don’t feature much in the way of distortion either.

Extras


You’re gonna have to hold onto those old Criterion discs, with their expert commentaries, essays, and documentaries, because features only a trailer and a couple of TV Spots.

Straw Dogs

Overall


It is a testament to the power of Straw Dogs that every expenditure I just made to convince detractors that the film isn’t the fascist nightmare they think it is could be disproven just as effectively. I even started doubting myself in the process of editing my work. Peckinpah’s leaves the door wide open to widely varying interpretations. His film is complex, ambiguous, and an onslaught of violent emotions and ugly images. It’s difficult to enjoy it, but just as difficult to ignore its incredible technical prowess. This new Blu-ray marks the clearest, sharpest, and most vibrant home video release, but the 5.1 soundtrack isn’t much of an upgrade, and the Criterion Collection extras are missing.

*Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


Links: