Straw Dogs was director Sam Peckinpah's most controversial film and probably the one he's best remembered for, though The Wild Bunch (1969) and The Getaway (1972) are also in the running. Though Peckinpah spent a lot of energy rationalizing his celluloid carnage as intellectual explorations of the violence that seethes within every one of us, it's unlikely he convinced anyone–even himself –that they were anything but bloodbaths aimed at an audience with a growing appetite for gore.
Peckinpah presented himself as a man dedicated to probing the duality of a culture that abhorred violence even as it waged war in Vietnam. In that sense, he might have been reflecting us in an unforgiving mirror, exposing our flaws more clearly than our beauty. But he was not the ironist he posed as, and exploited the very violence he claimed to despise.
Straw Dogs spends an hour or so setting up caricature characters to be pitted against each other in its orgiastic ending. There's David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman), a bookish mathematician who's condescending toward his more sociable spouse, Amy (Susan George), when he's not ignoring her outright. They've moved from America to an ancient village in Amy's native England, presumably so that he can avoid the draft and war in Vietnam.
Then there are the men of the village: loud, lazy drunks interested mainly in tweaking the meek American and boffing his attractive young wife. By the end, the married couple are barricaded in their home, trying to fight off a group of intoxicated locals bent on vigilante violence. In what is supposed to be a twist of irony, it turns out that the fellow David and Amy are protecting from the mob is, unknown to them, a pedophile and murderer. Peckinpah must have delighted in the notion of a pacifist who not only resorts to violence, but does so in defense of someone despicable.
Though the graphic violence of the climactic scene–tame by today's standards–opened the floodgates for far more explicit, gratuitous violence in movies that followed, that isn't the main reason Straw Dogs is remembered. Much of the controversy the film generated stemmed from its infamous rape scene, in which George's character is assaulted by a former boyfriend.
Peckinpah's own abuse of women in his life was well known. Even if it weren't, it might be evident in this scene, in which a woman clearly, emphatically, repeatedly says "No" to the rapist, only to wind up enjoying the assault. Sure, those were different times. Thirty-some years ago, the psychologies of rapist and rape victim weren't understood as they are today. Still, Peckinpah's inexcusable disdain for women transcends time.
"Women friends of mine were absolutely abused by him in the most unspeakable way," says Ali MacGraw in an interview in Sam Peckinpah: Man of Iron, an 82-minute documentary included on disc 2. (MacGraw starred in Peckinpah's The Getaway.) Says his buddy, Kris Kristofferson, who starred in three Peckinpah movies, "Like a lot of us, Sam had a lot of bad examples, I think, for how to treat women. I think Sam loved women, deeply, and was afraid of 'em." Such apologetic rationalizations are the sort of macho drivel that littered Peckinpah's life and work.
Other extras include interviews with Susan George and producer Daniel Melnick, which are typical lame DVD-extras fare; unremarkable behind-the-scenes footage; and On Location: Dustin Hoffman, a 26-minute by-the-numbers chat with the star. It opens with Simon and Garfunkel's "Sounds of Silence," which is ironic; it was in just such films as Dogs that Hoffman was trying to escape his The Graduate screen persona. Most interesting of the extras is film scholar Stephen Prince's commentary, an articulate if failed defense of the movie as "a masterpiece." But even he can't explain away the rape scene.
Also included is correspondence from Peckinpah to critics Pauline Kael and Richard Shickel, both of whom panned the flick. "The man who was running away from violence and commitment [Hoffman's character] did everything he could to provoke it by his deliberate pacificity," the director wrote to Shickel, who was then Life magazine's film critic. A laughable explanation, but the laughable can sometimes be entertaining.
The focus of the extras, Straw Dogs itself, simply isn't entertaining. Naturally, ol' Sam claimed the flick wasn't meant to be enjoyable. But neither is it the interesting or profound unveiling of our primal instincts that its creator was fond of claiming it (and his other films) to be. Disturbing, yes, but no artistic success by almost any measure. Exceptions are Peckinpah's occasionally competent use of quick cuts and montage to build tension, a sense of chaotic movement, and to convey a lot of visual information in a few frames.
Criterion has treated Straw Dogs with great care, and the transfer is amazing; this 32-year-old film looks decades younger, so clean and sharp are its images. Fleshtones are a bit pallid, but that might be what Peckinpah intended. The mono sound is as undistinguished and flat as the film itself.
Enthusiastically not recommended.–MM