Straw Dogs (1971)
By: Julian on July 2, 2009  | 
DVD
MRA Entertainment (Australia). Region 4, PAL. 1.78:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DD 2.0. 113 minutes.
The Movie
Cover Art
Credits
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Susan George, Peter Vaughan, TP McKenna, Del Henney
Screenplay: David Zelag Goodman, and Sam Peckinpah
Country: UK/USA
External Links
IMDB YouTube
Some serious spoilers for Straw Dogs commence herein so if you haven't yet seen the movie, I would recommend reading from the "Video" section of this review.

Dustin Hoffman plays David Sumner, a meek, mild mathematician who has escaped to a secluded hamlet in Cornwall with his gorgeous young wife Amy (Susan George), a local. The two had lived in the States earlier and opted for the change in order for David to gain some peace and quiet for his work. They set themselves up in a farmhouse a little bit out of town, David in a cold room with a blackboard scrawled upon with mathematical equations and Amy doing – well, not a great deal.

David soon discovers the general public opinion about his wife – she was a bit of a hussy; didn't mind flaunting it and continues to not mind flaunting it. She goes around topless by the window in front of construction workers and recommences a deep flirtation with Charlie, an old boyfriend. There are also serious fractures in David and Amy's personal life: David sees Amy as an immature little girl, and Amy sees David as a spineless bore. While Amy goes out of her way to chat up some of the blokes down at the local, including a group of men doing construction work on their farmhouse, David scrawls on his blackboard, much to the amusement of the local men and the vague embarrassment of his wife.

The construction workers begin to sexually harass Amy and taunt David until one of them kills the couple's cat and strings it up in their bedroom cupboard. They're both shocked and Amy tries to convince David to confront the men. Instead, he opts to try and gain their friendship and respect, agreeing to go bird shooting the next day.

The men take David out in the morning to go hunting and they plant him in a meadow, saying they'll drive the birds towards him for him to shoot. Instead they abandon him and Charlie goes to the farmhouse and rapes Amy. This is by far the scene that got Straw Dogs in the most trouble: the implication is there that it wasn't a rape scene and Amy enjoyed Charlie's initial advances. It's a legitimate reading of the sequence and led Peckinpah to be slammed with charges of misogynism and flat-out misanthropy. However the scene that immediately follows, where one of the hunters comes in and forces Charlie to have sex with Amy at shotgun-point, cannot be questioned: it's a rape of the most brutal sort. Much has been made of this sequence, so I won't go into it in too much depth here. The men eventually leave Amy crying on the couch.

After a number of hours, David realises that he's been tricked and returns home to find Amy severely distraught, but she doesn't tell him what happened. A few days later, the couple go to a church social and Amy panics when in the same room as Charlie and the other townsmen. On their way back home, they collide with Henry, a Lennie Small-like character who, unbeknownst to David and Amy, was escaping from the barn in which he had just killed a young girl, in a scene straight out of Of Mice and Men. David takes Henry back to the farmhouse to the vehement protests of Amy and soon enough, a drunken mob appears at their door baying for blood. It is here that David loses all inhibitions, and as the gang, wielding torches and shotguns, attempt to tear the house apart for Henry, he defends himself, his wife, Henry and his home in an explosion of violence.

If Straw Dogs isn't Sam Peckinpah's best film (for mine, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid just pips it, perhaps a controversial choice), then it's without a shadow of a doubt his most subversive is morally complicated. Fraught by alcoholism and forced out of the States by his 1970 picture The Ballad of Cable Hogue, which ran over time, wayyyyy over budget and bombed on initial release, Straw Dogs was filmed in England and was a much lower-key picture. Scripted by Peckinpah with David Zelag Goodman and based on Gordon Williams' 1969 novel The Siege of Trencher's Farm, Straw Dogs enabled the director to make a tight, intensely psychologically disturbing character driven piece without his usual indulgent and costly frills.

When it was released late in 1971, Straw Dogs attracted profound and unprecedented controversy. The scene that was so opposed was the rape scene, particularly the first, a sequence so ambiguous in its lead-up and execution that it's hard to confirm that Amy didn't welcome or enjoy it. In the UK, the film was banned on home video from 1984-1995, and again from 1999-2002. The reason was that the second rape committed against Amy was excised from the print shown to the BBFC on account of shortening the duration and impact of it, leaving the eroticised first scene and the devastating aftermath.

Peckinpah, one of the most underrated American filmmakers that ever lived, was a real master at exploring the minds of violent people – check out The Wild Bunch or Cross of Iron for proof positive of that. But Straw Dogs is a different beast in that it introduces a manifestly unviolent person and charts their descent. It's also worth noting that at no stage in the film does David come to the realisation that Amy has been raped – snapping at the end was a primal response to the torment that he himself had endured, the frustration of his wife's flirtatious behaviour and the townsmen's responses to it, and the concept of these people breaking into his home. "This is where I live," he explains to Amy. "This is me. I will not allow violence in this house".

This presents the problem that, although it's best known as one, Straw Dogs isn't a revenge flick. David doesn't avenge anything, he's just defending himself from the louts. But in its portrayal of violence and how far one man must be pushed before he explodes, it can proudly stand alongside revenge classics like Taxi Driver and Death Wish.

Straw Dogs is an unremittingly bleak picture, there's no doubt about it. And Peckinpah doesn't let us out easy with the ending. Forget any preconceptions you have about Peckinpah as being a hard-drinkin' gun-freak who made a few good Western flicks; Straw Dogs showcases the absolute zenith of his powers as a storyteller. It's getting the remake treatment too; Rod Lurie (The Last Castle) is bringing the couple to the Deep South, and the film is slated to be released sometime in 2010.
Video
The film has been presented in anamorphic 1:78:1. It's a pretty average presentation, with some grain and dull colours.
Audio
One English Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track. It's reasonably good throughout.
Extra Features
Straw Dogs has been treated poorly by MRA, with only biographies and filmographies provided. The Criterion disc is now out of print but UK distributors Fremantle have released a ripper R0 edition that can be bought online. If you're a fan of the film, I highly recommend it.
The Verdict
I can't recommend this movie enough – it's raw, incredibly powerful and still retains its ability to pack a punch. The MRA disc is worth grabbing simply by virtue of it being dirt cheap and locally available, otherwise an import is the way to go.
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score

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