Straw Dogs (1971) D: Sam Peckinpah

Straw Dogs (1971) D: Sam Paeckinpah

Straw Dogs

Maverick director Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs has attracted perhaps the most controversy of any of the entries in his filmography, including the brutal Western genre classic The Wild Bunch. First and foremost, this controversy springs from a horrific rape scene and the misogynist undertones of the whole circumstance.

Bookish American mathematician David and his young liberal wife Amy have moved to the English country side where Amy grew up, to ostensibly escape the turmoil of the US. An old boyfriend and a number of locals are employed to finish up the country estate where the couple live. Before long, local dramas and the attention Amy is attracting from ex-lover Charlie and his friends draws the pacifist David into a violent clash.

From the start, Amy is explicitly sexualised, walking down a street in her town in a tight top without a bra. David is the opposite, with a dour cardigan and glasses, clearly feeling out-of-place. At the local bar when a drunken old man gets out of hand, David’s reaction to the violence is in stark contrast to the indifference of the locals.

The dichotomy between the “new” 70s man of learning and the “traditional” man of the land and labour is also set up from the start and Peckinpah puts the two in constant opposition. On more than one occasion, Amy ridicules and questions David’s masculinity. She sabotages his work, flirts with the hired help and even exposes her bare breasts to them through a window. All the while David is engrossed in his work and impotent to the slow boiling menace of the locals who are taking advantage of him and not finishing their jobs.

By the time the audience is subjected to the violent attack of Amy by Charlie, it seems to be inevitable. When the violent scene turns sultry, the famed misogyny of Peckinpah is exposed. Along with Amy’s seeming resentment of David, Peckinpah seems to be saying that women want violent and chauvinist, highly sexual men. However, later as Amy recalls the attack while at the town church, she is shown to be suffering a good deal of post traumatic stress and the director perhaps redeems himself, although only slightly.

The intensity of the third act is built with the escalation of violence and by David’s decision to defend his home at all costs. The universal appeal of the Everyman fighting against all odds to defend his loved ones and exact brutal revenge is a theme that has been revisited in cinema a hundred times since – most notably the Rambo franchise and Commando. So despite the atrocious acts David perpetrates upon his aggressors, the audience (particularly men) will find themselves cheering him on.

Dustin Hoffman’s performance and Peckinpah’s tightly shot terror-and-gore-filled final act is a major part of the film’s endurance. Hoffman is perfect to play the at-first cowardly David, which makes his eventual quiet rage all the more exciting.

Peckinpah is not known for his positive or fair portrayal of women and Straw Dogs is the biggest of all his sins. The film was remade in 2011 and it will be interesting to see if the same misogyny pervades the piece. Still, it is clear that Straw Dogs has spawned a legacy of imitators and it can be argued it was a film at least a decade ahead of its time.

A flawed domestic thriller from a maverick master 4.5 stars

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~ by mfnm on November 12, 2011.

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