Straw Dogs (1971)
Straw Dogs (1971)

Genre: Thriller Running Time: 1 hr. 53 min.

Release Date: December 29th, 1971 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Sam Peckinpah Actors: Dustin Hoffman, Susan George, Peter Vaughan, T.P. McKenna, Del Henney, Jim Norton, Ken Hutchison, Sally Thomsett

 


 

“S

traw Dogs” starts up rather speedily, devoid of casual dialogue, possessing barely any setup for the location of rural England, and without introductions for any of the roles. Instead, audiences are immediately given perturbing character development and foreshadowing – some of it blatant and some of it brilliantly obscure. The first thing observed of Amy (Susan George) is her lack of a bra under her turtleneck. She appears overly flirtatious, but viewers aren’t meant to know exactly how aware she is of her unconcealed sexuality. She’s also childlike and regularly poses a nuisance for her husband, David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman). He recognizes her behavior instantly and is smart enough to be paranoid (rather than suspicious), especially when some of the townspeople similarly take notice of Amy’s display. He’s an American mathematician intent on writing a book and is therefore stereotypically portrayed as meek, bespectacled, scholarly, mature, and definitely out of his element.

The village folk seem to know everything about him: where he lives, what he’s working on, and his daily routines on the farm into which he’s recently moved. Amy has an ambiguous past in the town, but isn’t fond of the suggested romantic remembrance of her old friend Charlie Venner (Del Henney), who she knew more intimately six years ago. Yet he’s still hired, along with his cousin, to assist in the construction of a roof on Sumner’s garage. Charlie’s uncle, Tom Hedden (Peter Vaughan), a belligerent drunk who frequents the pub where David becomes a target for mockery, is also destined for wickedness. When the Sumners discover their pet cat brutally strung up in the closet, Amy suspects the two original contractors, Scutt (Ken Hutchison) and Cawsey (Jim Norton), cruelly proving their ability to walk all over David’s authority.

Amy is incredibly complex. She’s quick to question David’s manliness, challenge his bravery, and goad him into confronting the workers. Her manipulation can be seen as juvenile, assertive, and effective. Her husband fails to be as chivalrous as she hopes, and instead goes bird shooting in the moors with the roofers the following day. This leads to the film’s most controversial moments: Charlie leaves David out in the wilderness, allowing time for the predator to circle back to the cottage and rape Amy.

While the assault is clearly unwanted, numerous critics and censors of the ‘70s found it hard to ignore Amy’s apparent acceptance of Charlie’s actions once the deed is underway. One could argue that her mentality is legitimate as a defense mechanism, but many claim she wasn’t completely unwilling (although she definitely suffers from trauma). At the end of the film, when she’s attacked again, she cries out for Charlie to help her instead of her husband. Regardless of its intentions (which certainly could have been moral ambiguity), the film’s approach to carnality and sexual violence was too far ahead of its time for moviegoers, resulting in poor box office results and heavy censorship. Amy’s conduct is mirrored by Heddon’s teenaged daughter Janice (Sally Thomsett), who similarly parades around in clothing entirely too provocative for her age. Janice also controversially goes out of her way to socialize with the town’s Lennie Small-like child molester, Henry Niles (David Warner).

Complicated, mixed emotions are continually exhibited from each of the characters – even, shockingly, from the lead rapist, who largely disapproves of sharing his conquest. Many sentiments are shown through contemplative, calculating eyes, while others are presented with slow motion, rapid flashbacks, and frightening juxtaposition of contrasting or ear-piercing events. Conflicting, shifting attitudes further add to the major themes of cowardice and intimidation, as David is eventually brought to his breaking point.

While much of the beginning taps into psychological thrills, the harrowing conclusion finds the once timid man lashing out in a startlingly violent, sensationally edited jamboree of ire. Although David is harboring Niles, and liquor fuels Tom Hedden’s mob of tormentors, Sumner desperately wants to prove to his chastising, uncooperative wife (and himself) that he has what it takes to stand up against bullying and harassment. While questionable viewpoints toward women and violence and its justification are debatable, the ending is breathtaking as an out-of-control, pulse-pounding revenge fantasy. Like Stanley Kubrick with “A Clockwork Orange” (opening the same year), director Sam Peckinpah once again (as seen with his own “The Wild Bunch” from 1969) establishes that he can artistically, convincingly, purposefully, and thought-provokingly portray and analyze violence.

– Mike Massie

  • 9/10