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A fascinating and essential film...
on 24 July 2006
Sam Peckinpah's Cornish western has a heritage of controversy trailing in its wake. Perceived by turns as being misogynistic, exploitative, pornographic and gratuitously violent, it was labelled a "video nasty" in the 1980's and was consequently banned from view in the UK until the tail end of the nineties. An intriguing pedigree.
Essentially, what we have is a movie that uproots some of the values, morality and themes governing the mythic cinematic western and transplants them into an English backwater community. The locals are restless, being envious of and despising the American strangers (Dustin Hoffman and wife Susan George) who intrude on their redneck world. The fact that Hoffman's wife used to be one of their own serves to make matters worse, increasing both tension and conflict.
Hoffman wants to avoid trouble and remain peaceable, but ultimately is pushed too far when his cat is killed, wife is raped and his homestead is laid siege to by his tormentors. He stubbornly offers shelter to Niles, the village idiot, who has just inadvertently killed a young girl. His refusal to surrender the man to the (lynch) mob initiates the violent finale. The stage is set for a man doing what a man's gotta do, and this translates as holding the fort whilst killing and maiming as many of the attacking natives as possible.
The controversy surrounding the film stems primarily from the issues of sex and violence. When Amy (Susan George) is raped by one villager she responds ambiguously by first seeming resistant and naturally unwilling to participate and then appearing to enjoy the experience, encouraging her attacker (who is also an ex-boyfriend). This duality of attitude, this ambivalent mixed message towards forced sex upset many a feminist and non-feminist alike at the time and led to accusations of exploitation and misogyny on the part of the director. Compounding the situation is the fact that immediately following this first act of sexual abuse, Peckinpah then has the Amy character anally raped by another villager. Ultimately, her response is to conceal these events from her husband and appear no more than slightly withdrawn, petulant and a bit miffed. Any psychological and emotional trauma or physical discomfort or damage she may have experienced is ignored and unexplored. In fact, if one is honest, Peckinpah actually succeeds in trivialising rape. Events earlier in the film clearly suggest that she "was asking for it anyway." Amy is seen to "tease" the locals by appearing naked at her window whilst they work on her barn roof outside. This monumentally sexist attitude provoked outrage in the early 1970's and no major filmmaker today would be likely to get away with such an approach to the subject matter. Peckinpah argued that it was in fact cuts by the British censor that actually succeeded in making the rape scenes appear more pornographic and less politically correct than his original intent - but I'm inclined to take this with a pinch of salt.
The violence at the end involves a foot being blown off with a shotgun, a beating with a poker, boiling water being thrown into faces and a semi-decapitation with a man-trap. By today's standards, they can hardly be considered gratuitous or graphic in their depiction. However, it is a testament to Peckinpah's skill as a filmmaker and Dustin Hoffman and Susan George's performances that the experience of the siege is both powerful and harrowing. The drunken mob are suitably menacing, mindless, obnoxious and deserving of their fate. It's an exciting end to what is essentially a slow-burning and action-free movie constructed primarily to gradually crank-up the tension until the climax. In this sense the film does not disappoint. Hoffman gives a nervy, slightly-wired, pacifistic almost to the point of cowardice type of performance throughout that contributes magnificently to the build-up. His character finally snaps under pressure from all the insults, goading and abuse he has received from his antagonists. He utilises the provision of a safe-haven for the mentally challenged Niles more as an excuse to exact revenge, to force a confrontation, than to satisfy any moral rationale he may harbour. The stand-off is not even about retribution for the rape of his wife, more an affirmation of his own manhood, standing up to the bully, facing down the bad guys. Typical macho Peckinpah ideology steeped in Western mythology.
To conclude, Straw Dogs is a fascinating and essential film by a master craftsman. In technical terms, it builds a sense of suspense and ever-increasing dread in the audience with almost clinical expertise. The climax is nearly as cleverly choreographed as the finale to The Wild Bunch - only framed by different culture and in different context. If you can ignore the faintly repugnant ideology behind the rape sequence (which probably says more about Peckinpah's personal attitude towards women than anything else) then this is a true 70's classic that even today has the power to shock and enthral.