One of Sam Peckinpah's most controversial efforts, Straw Dogs came out at a critical moment in the early 1970s, released in the same month as both Dirty Harry and A Clockwork Orange, causing a furor over film violence. Bas... more »ed on a little-known British novel, the film casts Dustin Hoffman as a bookish American mathematician on sabbatical in rural England, in the town where his young bride (Susan George) grew up. He finds himself forced to defend his home against an assault by local toughs, and discovers a frighteningly feral and vicious side to himself. Though Straw Dogs has a reputation for graphic violence, it actually looks tame by contemporary standards. Instead, the violence is psychological, and the suspense and shocks are induced by the editing--you're more terrified by what you think you see than by what you are actually shown. --Marshall Fine« less
"People seem to love or hate this movie. I love it. Dustin Hoffman plays professor on "sabbatical" to write a book on astronomy and computers. There is some allusion to his having been driven to his sabbatical (or from his job) because of his refusal to take a stand over some undefined issue at his place of employment. In any case, he retreats to a farmhouse in rural England with his pretty wife, played by Susan George.When some of the local underemployed thugs start bullying him--(The script and Peckinpah's direction of the actors hits bull's-eye here; having lived in England, I saw the same sort of behavior--punks all over, I guess, have mannerisms of bullying peculiar to their culture.) The violent climax to this film is--you hate to say it--beautiful. It certainly isn't gorey by today's standards. This, perhaps, is what makes people so uncomfortable about this movie--their own reaction to the violence. Hoffman conveys wonderfully both the fear and the satisfaction his character is experiencing. At one level, this film exists as a simple tale of revenge. At another level, the movie affirm's Peckinpah's vision of violence as a rite of manhood. Whether this rite is a regrettable one . . . well, that remains arguable, and this ambiguity is part of what makes this such a watchable, and re-watchable, movie."
That most ugly abstraction
peter wild | 11/21/2001
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Aside from the notoriety, and aside from the viciousness (the film leaves you most of all with a taste of viciousness in your mouth, a sour, bitter, metallic taste, akin to that feeling you get reading "The Tin Drum", the piece of metal stuck in the back of your throat), what you get from "Straw Dogs" is a manifestation of personal demons (specifically, Sam Peckinpah's personal demons, but also, both more generally and more acutely, masculine demons) and an exploration of a certain type of male sexuality.To do the film justice, you need to plug your brain in. Which, on the surface, may not appear to be the case, because the story - what it is - is relatively simple. It's an English western. David, a mathematician (Dustin Hoffman), is on sabbatical from the university where he teaches. He has left the states and returned with his wife Amy, (Susan George) to the tiny English village in which she grew up. From the word go, David has to contend with the fact that Amy has a history in the town. He also has to contend with the fact that she is younger than him, and bored. Her boredom serves as a distraction from the reason behind his sabbatical. Amy on the other hand has to live with a quiet, "odd" American who does not give her the attention she requires.Within the town, there are various echoes at work: there is a character called Niles, played by David Warner, who has a known history of problems relating with women (to the extent that he has served time for undisclosed offences); there are the locals, who divide their time between procrastinating over work on David and Amy's roof, and leering at Amy (who periodically informs David about the effect she has on them, how they "lick her all over with their eyes"); and there is David himself, spending a little more time than he really should looking at teenager Sally Thomsett.All of which feeds into the terrible rape scene (a scene of which Peckinpah is quoted as saying - in the excellent biography "If it moves . . . kill 'em" - "I wanted to film the best rape scene ever" - a line ripe with complexity and moral disorder): Amy is raped by Charlie, leader of the leering locals, who may or may not be her childhood sweetheart (two earlier scenes indicate that (a) something went on years earlier and (b) Charlie took it further then than Amy was happy with). At some point during the awful protracted rape, for whatever reason (and there is something manifest at work in her face, palpably desire but desire for what - who knows?) she stops fighting and starts (ugly this, but true - this is what happens in the film:) - starts to participate. The participation is taken (by some) to be a playing out of a certain retrogressive masculine attitude (that all women - deep down etc etc etc). However you interpret it - and it does require interpretation, importantly - the participation is at the dark heart of "Straw Dogs"' notoriety. The fact that this is followed by the appearance of a second man, and a second rape, only compounds the difficulty - the cloudiness - that will inevitably surround any attempt to precisely articulate what is going on here.At which point, the echoes become still more manifest: you have Niles, despised because of his weakness for young girls (and as such - in the context of the character's lives - a "bad" man), you have the men who rape Amy (a fact that remains undisclosed within the body of the film), men who later attempt to avenge themselves on Niles (in a vivid reworking of "Of Mice and Men"), and you have David - a man in whom, perhaps, all of these violent urges conflict. The film culminates in a series of extremely violent (and ridiculous) altercations, veering wildly between extremes (shotguns firing off left, right and centre, characters riding tricycles and playing bagpipe records, mantraps, boiling fat, fire, pokers, broken glass, wire). But the central relationship - the whole dynamic of the film - between David and Amy continues to fight definition, remaining ultimately unresolved and unclear. In the end, aside of everything else (aside of the fact that this film lingers with you, you do not watch "Straw Dogs" and leave it at that, those "Straw Dogs" take up residence with you, for a while), you have the fact that this film would not get made today - the Dustin Hoffman character is too complex and too unsympathetic, and there are too many (coldly intellectual) questions raised by what goes on. It is dissatisfying but intentionally so: this is Peckinpah's "Salo": it demonstrates that resolution is the most ugly abstraction, that what gets wrapped up leaves the viewer with no space for thought: that which is left open, is that which remains discussed. At the end, almost a week after last watching the film, I am reminded of what Ian McEwan wrote in his novel "Black Dogs": "...I came face to face with evil. I didn't quite know it at the time, but I sensed it in my fear - these animals were the creations of debased imaginations, of perverted spirits no amount of social theory could account for. And . . .when conditions are right . . . a terrible cruelty, a viciousness against life erupts, and everyone is surprised by the depth of hatred within . . . (But) This is what I know: Human nature, the human heart, the spirit, the soul, the consciousness itself - call it what you like - in the end, it's all we've got to work with. It has to develop and expand, or the sum of our misery will never diminish."That is - at last - "Straw Dogs"' role: to develop, to expand, to show us what can be, what needn't be, but what is, and hope that something else (not necessarily finer) but something else, prevails."
Brutal vision of manhood
Ary Luiz Dalazen Jr. | 12/03/1999
(3 out of 5 stars)
"Straw Dogs is a controversial film. Some people hated it, others loved it. The fact is that Sam Peckinpah was a controversial man: in his films, violence was a necessary test that every man had to face in order to prove his manhood. Peckinpah was a hard man, and his vision of life and humanity is shown in Straw Dogs, you may agree with him or not, but you will have to accept the basic concept: in the heart of every coward, burns a beast, a straw dog. And Peckinpah says in his movie that when you are caught in a dangerous situation, you change, and you are capable to kill or do anything in order to survive. No one did it better than this filmmaker, maybe Boorman with Deliverance, but Straw Dogs is a cruel testimony of the cruelty that common men are capable to do.Hoffman is terrific, and in the end, when his house and wife are in danger, his whole coward character changes, and he turns into a explosive and brutal murderer. Susan George carries on a difficult part, the scene of the rape is one of the most shocking and complex images of the seventies.In the end, you will understand why the tagline says that in the eyes of every coward burns a straw dog."
A film that loathes it's audience as much as it's characters
Au Hasard Jonathan | 11/19/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I've now seen Straw Dogs 7 times. The first time I saw it years ago, I thought it was pretty good, kind of slow, but good. The second time I fell in love with it; for all the wrong reasons. The third time, something clicked and I realized this isn't a Hollywood movie, there's a reason it still strikes a nerve with so many people: it's one of the few films that says to you, in a whisper:
"If you like this movie for the action, you're scum; if you associate with any of the characters, you're scum. If you cheer during the siege, you're utter scum. This is not a heroic film, there are no good people, because in life there are no good people, we are all animals."
At the time, and to this day, claims of the glorification of violence are heard, but this is just idiotic. In order to glorify something, in the end, it has to be shown in a majestic light. Straw Dogs does everything but this; it begins quietly and ends bleakly, you'd be heart broken if you weren't so scarred and trembling.
Sure, Hoffman goes from mouse to "man", "but at what cost?", the film asks. His already crumbling marriage is utterly obliterated by the final sequence of the film, where he declares that he's no idea how to get home, because what once was his house, wife and all, is no longer a part of him.
It's a statement on many things: the animal nature of the human being: territory, sex, violence, pride; the futility of law. Highly recommended, but don't expect a chipper feeling when the credits begin."
Peckinpah's psychological character study
Jeffrey Leach | Omaha, NE USA | 12/12/2003
(4 out of 5 stars)
"I remember hearing Charlton Heston once remark about Sam Peckinpah that the man had a great career and vision but then sadly "started blowing off heads." Heston may be right in his analysis of Peckinpah's dedication to dramatic violence, as one need look no further than the closing sequences of the seminal "Wild Bunch" to see a death toll of truly shocking proportions. This director's proclivity for bloody violence, usually shown in slow motion to ratchet up the effect, doesn't find as much expression in the 1971 psychological thriller "Straw Dogs." There are a few nasty encounters with a shotgun peppered throughout the final twenty or thirty minutes of this atmospheric picture, but nary a head leaves its shoulders here. Starring Dustin Hoffman, a few years after his stint in "The Graduate," and a fresh-faced Susan George, "Straw Dogs" spends more time setting up a pervasive sense of doom than concerning itself with a huge body count. Actually, this movie's restraint is surprising for a Peckinpah picture. Then again, I haven't seen a lot of Sammy's films, so perhaps this movie falls into a period when the director felt a need for moderation. David Sumner (Hoffman) and his British wife Amy (George) decide to rent a cottage in England while David works on writing a book. The village the two decide to live in has intimate connections with Amy Sumner, who lived there before meeting and marrying the bookish David. A gang of local thugs, who the Sumners hire to repair the roof of the cottage's barn, well remembers Amy. One of the guys actually had a relationship with this mouthy woman, a link that bodes ill for the amiable but wimpy David. Even worse, the goons have the support of the primary troublemaker in town, a man who even the local constable tiptoes around. The Brits resent David's slightly arrogant manner, his nerdy appearance, and the fact that he goes home with one of their own every night. Disrespect for David takes mild forms at first, usually in the form of funny looks or comments muttered under the breath, but soon the tension between the men and the Sumners escalates into the murder of a pet cat and intimidation on the road leading into the village. David rationalizes away the threats by stating that the problem will simply "go away" if he ignores it. His wife, who seems to know more about how things work in town, urges David to confront the local men. The tension becomes palpable as Sumner must deal not only with the hostility of the local populace but with his wife's strident calls for action as well. It soon gets to the point where Amy questions David's manhood over his meek manners and sycophantic behavior.Things go from bad to worse when Amy's former boyfriend, who sees David's simpering personality as a sign of weakness, decides to reassert his claim to Amy. In a scene that led to a ban on the film in Great Britain for three decades, the gang lures David away from the house so Amy's former beau can pay her a visit. The subsequent scenes are tough to watch, not necessarily because of their brutality but due to Amy's response to part of the proceedings. Not until another goon steps in does Amy show great resistance to what has happened, leading a viewer to believe that David's wife actually encouraged this sleazy rendezvous. Peckinpah seems to want us to think so, since Amy casts aspersions on David's manhood immediately before this incident. Surprisingly, Amy's misfortune is not the final straw that breaks the dog's back. Instead, a local criminal accidentally kills a local girl affiliated with the same village dregs making David's life miserable. Subsequent events find David providing sanctuary for this criminal as the thugs lay siege to the Sumner cottage. The result: a meek, educated man regresses into an animal capable of incredible violence."Straw Dogs" moves at a glacial pace as Peckinpah builds tension through the encounters between the Sumners and the locals. The performances are generally good, with Hoffman standing out as the harassed mathematician who wants to leave well enough alone and finish his work. David Warner, a personal favorite, does a good job as the mentally challenged criminal Henry Niles. Unfortunately, Warner doesn't appear onscreen as much as I would have liked. The thugs are, well, thugs. Susan George, on the other hand, grates as Amy Sumner. I hated her character, a woman who is quick to push David into confrontation, calls into question his manhood when he resists her efforts, and then essentially stands back in the end by letting him face the goons all by himself. Amy's reacquaintance with her former boyfriend creates a sense of ambiguity on the part of the viewer towards Amy Sumner: on one level, you hate her for "enjoying" the crime, but on the other hand you feel for her when things go further than she anticipated. But you feel sorry only to a point, and perhaps that is what Peckinpah intended. I cannot help but think this director created the Amy character in order to express a deep-seated misogyny. Overall, I liked "Straw Dogs," but I wouldn't watch it again soon. I unfortunately watched the Anchor Bay DVD version, but a Criterion disc has since emerged sporting lots of extras that might shine a spotlight or two on the inner workings of the film. If you want to watch this picture, you should probably get that disc. Obviously, there won't be a Peckinpah commentary on the DVD (he's been dead for years), but Criterion does a good job with its releases. For me, I think I'll stick to "The Wild Bunch" and "The Getaway" in the future."