Directed by Sam Peckinpah
Written by David Zelag Goodman, Sam Peckinpah, Gordon Williams
Starring Dustin Hoffman, Susan George, Peter Vaughan
118 mins - Drama | Thriller - Release date: 29 December 1971
It’s difficult to review a movie that’s over 40 years old. And what it ultimately boils down to is a recommendation with either criticism or praise. Whether or not a reviewer likes the movie, it could just come down to a recommendation to log the hours because the film has some historical significance. Such significance could mean that it features an actor who went on to do well, or awho won some prestigious award or another, or the film itself set a new benchmark as it tread on new and fresh themes and territory for its time.
All of the above can be said for 2011 remake directed by Rod Lurie and starring James Marsden.), the original, mind you. (I have yet to see the
Straw Dogs star Dustin Hoffman went on to do Tootsie, Ishtar, Hook, Kung Fu Panda… oh, wait, good movies. OK, so Hoffman went on to do Papillon, Lenny, All the President’s Men, Marathon Man, Kramer vs. Kramer, Rain Man, and the list goes on. The director, Sam Peckinpah, won some Cognac Festival du Film Policier awards for The Osterman Weekend, won a Golden Boot Award, and actually won the Kansas City Film Critics Circle Award for Best Director for Straw Dogs. And the film itself, well it marched boldly into a new genre of brutal violence for brutal violence’s sake and oversexualized rape scenes.
I won’t go into too much detail about what goes on in the film, as I’m sure most readers are already familiar with it. But briefly, David Sumner (Hoffman) and his wife Amy (Susan George) return to England to renovate and live in Amy’s late father’s home (she’s English and David is American). The small town is populated by a wild and ignorant bunch, making David an even greater outcast than if he’d just been American; David is an intellectual who seems to have “evolved” past “survival of the fittest.” Actually, he’s somewhat of a pansy, incapable of self-defense, much less protecting his wife.
As it turns out, Amy has a history with one of the town’s brutes and ends up being “raped” by him. I’m using the term “raped” loosely, since it only took a couple smacks and forced entry before she was a willing participant. I guess the real rape happened when her ex’ friend entered and wanted a turn while she was pinned down.
The town also has its local idiot/rapist, whom David ends up protecting in his barricaded home. Seems the idiot went off with the town’s little underaged tramp, who happens to be the town’s worst culprit’s daughter, and accidentally killed her. Now there’s a manhunt for the idiot, which climaxes at David’s house.
Anyway, David makes this his manly stand against brutality, finally growing a pair and protecting his own. Yay!
But it’s all awkward because Amy no longer has any respect for him and might have fallen completely out of love with him. So, other than proving his fortitude to himself, it’s kind of a futile effort.
Where Does Straw Dogs Fall Apart?
That’s a cursory description of the film, which is longer than I wanted to it to be. However, I feel like I needed to give at least that so that you could understand the real problem with this film — it falls apart at its extreme misogyny. And not just because of the “rape” scene. David is deplorable in his treatment of Amy, saying such things as:
“Why don’t you grow up?”
“You act like you’re 14 years old. …How about eight? I freak out for 8 year olds.”
Basically he treats her like a child, telling her to “shut up” and mind him. David treated her this way even before the violence started; our first hint was when he told her to “get in the car.”
Where Does Straw Dogs Succeed?
What Peckinpah nailed in this film, or maybe it was Hoffman’s portrayal, was the duality of Man existing in David, a duality that can be extended to all men. David is pitiful as a man, almost pathetic in his ability to function as a “man.” Peckinpah reinforces this by having Amy drive the car (even if the reason is because the driver side is on the right in England), and when David finally does attempt to drive, in order to show the town’s ruffians that he has a pair, he embarrasses himself when he grinds the gears and stalls the car.
While David can’t assert himself publicly (and especially to other men), he makes up for it by disrespecting his wife. Granted, Women’s Lib was still ongoing, but I don’t believe women were that mistreated. Then we have the fact that David exceeded his ineptitude with intelligence, because now the fittest is the smartest as opposed to the strongest. But when under siege, David had to call upon his primal instincts in order to survive, while adhering to a higher morality because he was protecting someone.
Was Peckinpah’s message that the “new” man is still a primal man? Was his message that we’re all base and shitty in our existence?
After years of hearing Straw Dogs praised to Kingdom Come, I was disappointed. Hoffman was great, even if his character wasn't entirely believable. Much of the actions and dialog seemed to force the plot, which affected the film’s flow. I have to give the film five skulls for its “must-see” value. It is, after all, a classic with Dustin Hoffman and a forerunner in the genre. However, my personal value on Straw Dogs is about a three out of five.