Manson, Vietnam, Watergate, Zodiac; the late sixties and early seventies were a time of turbulent social upheaval. The 70ís in particular was a watershed decade in the history of film. The collapse of the studio system, along with a mainstream culture pervaded with cynicism and unrest, along with studios willing to try just about anything to save their floundering industry, set the stage for some of the grittiest mainstream films ever produced. It was the climate that gave us such masterpieces as The Exorcist, Chinatown and the first two Godfather films.
In a decade known for controversial films, Sam Peckinpahís Straw Dogs ranks as one of the most notorious. Released the same month as A Clockwork Orange and the first Dirty Harry film, Straw Dogs helped ignite a debate on violence in film and arguably laid the groundwork for the rape & revenge sub-genre that rose to prominence during the latter half of the decade. Films like Last House on the Left and Death Wish, influential themselves, owe a debt to Straw Dogs.
David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) is an American mathematician on sabbatical with his young wife Amy (Susan George) in her native England. David is doing research for a book on stellar mathematics. The sabbatical also provides David with an excuse to flee the urban turmoil thatís flaring up stateside. When asked if he witnessed any of the rioting, David replies: ďYeah, in between commercials.Ē Heís clearly a conflict adverse man, something that irks Amy. Throughout the film she will push him to be a more confrontational, alpha male type. A bit more, perhaps, like Charlie Venner (Del Henney) Amyís ex-boyfriend whom Amy suggests David hire to oversee the reconstruction of the garage at Trencherís Farm.
The group of locals take an immediate dislike to David despite him agreeing to give them work. They are lazy and shiftless, more concerned with ogling Amy and snickering at Davidís perceived weakness than actually doing the job they were contracted for. David does his best not to antagonise them despite the fact that they very likely are the cretins who hung Amyís cat in the coupleís bedroom closet. Amy pushes David to confront them but David equivocates and winds up agreeing to go game bird hunting with them. They machinate to leave David out in the brush by himself, burlap sack in hand, waiting for birds to come his way. While heís sitting in the brush, Venner finds his way back to the Sumner home, insinuates his way in and forces himself on Amy. Although she resists him, midway through her attitude seems to change and after she seems conflicted about what has just happened. Soon Norman Scutt (Ken Hutchinson), another townie, arrives and forces Venner to hold Amy down while he rapes her as well. Realizing that heís been abandoned, David arrives home later than night, angry and oblivious to Amyís obviously frazzled state. Heís so absorbed with his own petty anger that he doesnít even seem to notice the bruise on his wifeís cheek, nor her obvious discomfort when he tries to get intimate with her. She doesnít tell him about the attacks of that afternoon. The next day he tensely confronts and fires the entire crew, paying out their wages. They leave, but the situation is clearly far from resolved in their minds.
While driving home from a church social the next night, Amy and David hit Henry Niles (David Warner) with their car. Henry is the town simpleton who once ďmade a mistakeĒ with a local girl, a mistake for which he had never been adequately punished in the eyes of the townsfolk. Now, another local girl Janice Hedden (Sally Thomsett) has gone missing and Niles is the prime suspect. When the locals, drunk and whipped into a lynch mob, find out that the Sumnerís are harbouring Niles while waiting on a doctor, they descend on Trencherís Farm. The situation quickly escalates out of control and once the mob has gone too far to back down, David is pressed past his breaking point and the usually peaceful man fights back in the most brutal ways imaginable.
Straw Dogs doesnít provide the audience with catharsis at the end, nor does it soft pedal its violence. While it certainly doesnít condone the violence of the townies or their attack on Amy, it doesnít glorify Davidís retaliation or try to make him into a hero, either. Heís simply doing what he feels he needs to, when he needs to do it. Heís shocked by the level of violence heís pushed to and perhaps a bit disgusted at himself, as well. Itís this lack of a clear moral centre to the film that makes some people uneasy, but that I see as its greatest strength. Love it or hate it, Straw Dogs is a film that doesnít allow you the luxury of sitting back and cheering for the hero. It will make you question your reaction to the violence you see.
Part of the reason the ambiguity works so well is in the characterization of its two leads. They are not perfect people but theyíre not bad people, either. Theyíre simply allowed to be human. David is the ostensible hero of the piece but heís insecure, petty and insensitive and inattentive to his wife. Similarly, Amy is immature and petulant. Despite her insistence that she take a more active role in running the household, she really seems to lack the maturity to successfully take on a lot of responsibility. Theirs is a marriage struggling even before the films opens. The tension between them invests even the quieter scenes with a feeling of unease, and the film is stunningly successful at building tension even before the main antagonism is even introduced.
The biggest point of contention with the film focuses on the central rape scene. The ambiguity of the scene is what gets most people. Is the implication of the scene is that Amy grows to enjoy being violated? I donít think so. If anything, the scene is one of the most honest rape scenes ever committed to film because it is brave enough to portray the mix of emotions a rape survivor may feel during (and after) her attack. Thereís a clear implication that Amy reaches climax while she was being raped, but an orgasm is an involuntary response. Just because she had one that doesnít mean that she enjoyed, welcomed, or asked to be attacked. Her orgasm and resultant shame is the real tragedy of the scene. That the ambiguity of the scene is what disturbs people is no fault of the film, but the fault of a culture that only views sexuality in black and white terms and is reluctant to talk about it either way.
I think the reason Straw Dogs remains controversial 40 years later is not so much its violence or even the rape scene (both of which are still potent, to be sure) but its overall moral ambiguity. Itís a film with provocative content but a largely neutral viewpoint that will be coloured by the audienceís pre-existing bias: liberal viewers may connect with the message that for Davidís victory at the end of the film, the violence he has committed hasnít really accomplished anything, nor made his life any better. On the flip side, however, more conservative viewers will note the subtext about crime and punishment: had Niles been properly punished after his first ďmistakeĒ the siege at the end might never have happened. When David repels the thugs trying to break into his home, heís belatedly punishing them for the rape of his wife, an act he never knew occurred. The suggestion is that crime must be punished to the fullest extent possible, since most criminals have probably committed other, possibly worse, crimes that they have not yet been punished for.
The secret to understanding Straw Dogs, I believe, lies in its title. Though based on the novel The Seige of Trencherís Farm, Peckinpah changed the title to Straw Dogs in reference to a quote from the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu: "Heaven and earth are not humane, and regard the people as straw dogs." Heaven is indifferent to the struggles of man. There is no divine moral law. When faced with madness and evil the choice between liberal or conservative values is an illusion. In the end, there is simply the choice between living and dying. David made his choices and must now live with them but, as the movie ends, Iím not entirely sure heís convinced his choices were the right ones.
Straw Dogs has a stark, heavily de-saturated colour palette that is very typical of the 1970s and compliments the tone of the film well. Thankfully the AVC transfer allows the film to look its age. There is none of the artificial warming of the picture that occurs on so many other studio catalogue releases, I guess in an attempt to make the films look more contemporary. Detail doesnít get lost in the foggy scenes during the final siege and during the daylight scenes textures, like the cobble stone streets and brick buildings of the town and farm, are faithfully reproduced. The age of the film at first belies the transferís true strengths but, like the film itself, the more and closer you look at it the better it gets.
The DTS-HD Master Audio track is not as impressive as the video. The audio remix doesnít seem to have been done with much care. Thereís a lack of strong directional effects, ambient sounds are perfunctory when audible at all and dialogue, confined to the front channels, is mostly adequate but is occasionally tinny, hollow and clipped. The original mono track is not provided, which is will be a real disappointment for purists (like me) who feel the original audio should be standard on the catalogue re-issue specs.
Fans looking for a high-def upgrade of the Criterion supplements from the 2-disc release will be sorely disappointed. This ostensible 40th Anniversary Edition has only the barest of supplements. Firstly, a theatrical trailer (1:43) presented in anamorphic 1.85. Itís actually pretty good, and gives a good indication of the tension and oppressiveness of the film itself. Lastly, there are three TV spots running a total of 1:40 and presented in 1:33 full-frame, with the two shorter ones representing edited versions of the longest. They are as full of 70ís ad-copy hyperbole as youíd expect and I got a kick out of them.
Itís not a huge surprise that none of the Criterion supplements have been ported over but itís still a disappointment that a film of this importance doesnít even warrant a short original documentary. I understand the economics involved but, with the remake due in theatres in short order, a minimal effort in compiling a supplemental package would likely not have gone unrewarded.
Straw Dogs is an important and masterful film thatís as much a textbook case in building suspense and tension as any of Hitchcockís finest films. It stays with you long after itís over as you turn it over and over in your mind, trying to decipher your feelings about it. You may not hold it in as high esteem as I do but you certainly canít ignore its power. The ď40th AnniversaryĒ Blu-ray release, however, represents a huge missed opportunity. Despite the discsí shortcomings itís still an easy recommend to someone who doesnít already own Straw Dogs. Owners of the Criterion edition are probably better off just sticking with that release.
*Because of the quality of the HD format, the clarity, resolution and color depth are inherently a major leap over DVD. Since any Blu-ray will naturally have better characteristics than DVDs, the rating is therefore only in comparison with other Blu-ray titles, rather than home video in general. So while a Blu-ray film may only get a C, it will likely be much better than a DVD with an A.
Shame about the extras...
UK release for me...
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