'Straw Dogs' Searches for Human Nature but Finds Only Misogyny

by Brice Ezell

2 August 2017

The iconic value of Sam Peckinpah's filmic capture of human depravity doesn't outweigh its tired nihilism and especially its misogyny.
Dustin Hoffman as David Sumner (IMDB) 
cover art

Straw Dogs

Director: Sam Peckinpah
Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Susan George, Peter Vaughan

US DVD: 27 Jun 2017

Superficially, nothing links the classic 1990 comedy Home Alone with the 2012 Daniel Craig-led James Bond flick Skyfall. In fact, the plot of the former and the final scene of the latter share a single filmic referent: the unrelentingly bleak Straw Dogs, a 1971 thriller that to this day remains one of director Sam Peckinpah‘s most controversial films.

These three pictures, in their own way, use the scene of a home invasion as a critical component of their storytelling. For Macaulay Culkin’s character in Home Alone, the attempted home robbery by two bumbling thieves provides him the chance to prove his worth after being abandoned by his family. The invaded home in Skyfall represents the destructiveness Craig’s Bond brings with him everywhere he goes. In Peckinpah’s vision, the familial home is where human nature comes to life in its purest—and most nihilistic—essence.

From the first frame of the film, Peckinpah makes it clear that nothing ends well in life and in Straw Dogs. David Sumner (a young and buff Dustin Hoffman) arrives with his new wife Amy (Susan George) in her quaint hometown, a village in southwest England. The couple is in the process of having their house built, a task for which Amy’s ex-boyfriend Charlie (Del Henney) and his friends Cawsey (Jim Norton), Phil (Donald Webster), and Norman (Ken Hutchison) offer their services. Aloof and unaware of the hold Amy has over these men, David agrees, and soon they begin construction of the newlywed’s home, located on a quiet plot outside of the town center.

While Charlie and his men loom over the unfinished house, the heat of David and Amy’s marriage cools from flames to mere embers. David moves to England both to be with Amy and because he received a grant for his mathematical research, but once he sets up in the house, it’s the latter that takes precedence above all. He stares at piles of papers and intricate formulas on a chalkboard.

Sensing David’s weakness, Charlie and his men leer at Amy with impunity. When David proves ineffective at challenging the other men, Amy begins acting out against David. She stands topless in front of a window in full view of Charlie and his men. She erases or manipulates formulas on David’s chalkboard. The tension in Straw Dogs roots itself in David and Amy’s marriage, yet the palpable strain between the two is not enough for Peckinpah. Charlie, his men, and eventually the whole town form a malevolent thunderhead over the Sumner’s rural existence. Even the church services feel like incantations of doom.

David and his antagonists come to battle in the film’s thrilling climactic home invasion, without which Straw Dogs would likely not be regarded as a classic by so many. After accidentally hitting with his car Henry Niles (John Warner), a local man known for inappropriate behavior with young women, David brings him to his home in hopes of getting a doctor. David does not realize that the night before, Henry strangled a young girl who had come on to him.

The young girl’s father, with Charlie and his men in tow, storm David and Amy’s house demanding retribution. Drunkenly smashed windows give way to a fateful shotgun blast, which gives way to what was in 1971 some of the most disturbing violent imagery in cinema. In defending his home, David becomes a lone man on the English frontier, not unlike the characters in Peckinpah’s Westerns.

With Straw Dogs Peckinpah revels in the freedom brought about by the abandonment of the Production Code, a set of standards the film industry imposed upon itself from 1934 to 1968. The tight-bodiced moralism of the Code—which forbade everything from seeing a couple in bed together to “brutal killings” to insulting clergy—hangs in the background of Straw Dogs, a film whose aim is to unearth the base impulses of humanity, the impulses which in Peckinpah’s view no Code could ever truly repress. Amy is shown topless twice, and her sexual appetite would have undoubtedly been a target for film censors in the Code era.

Further, the violence is unsparingly bloody, and even when no blood is shown Peckinpah doesn’t fail to communicate the gravity of the horrific acts visited upon these characters by each other. One of the core principles of the code maintains that “Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented” in movies. Straw Dogs is a shotgun blast to that idea.

The promotional copy for the Criterion Collection edition of Straw Dogs, released relatively early in the Collection’s history but now given a Blu-ray update, claims that the film “lays out [Peckinpah’s] eloquent and bloody vision of humanity.” In the booklet included with the Criterion edition, Peckinpah says in an interview that violence is “part of our existence; it’s within us. I recognize that I’m a violent man. I believe that a human being must try, at any price, to recognize and track down the violence brewing in him.”

The unforgiving brutality of Straw Dogs has a long lineage; Peckinpah’s vision, however singular, is not new. The dog-eat-dog, insider/outsider mentality can be found in the writing of Thomas Hobbes, John Calvin, and many others. Willam Golding’s The Lord of the Flies was released just 27 years before Peckinpah’s cinematic gaze into the abyss of existence. To add to this discourse, whose single-minded insistence on human depravity tends to claw away at nuance, Straw Dogs must say something new, must give more to its audience beyond the uncontroversial notion that bad people do bad things, and that when pushed to our limits, humans can do the unthinkable.

On all matters of technicality, Straw Dogs succeeds. The acting compels throughout, particularly Hoffman’s and George’s performances. Hoffman’s mathematician comes across as impossibly blinkered at times, but he effectively foils with Amy, whose ambiguous intentions and emotions become the most intriguing element of the film. Peckinpah’s direction and John Coquillon’s cinemaphotography keep the pace of the film at a rising simmer, until the rolling boil of the home invasion at the end brings the story to a heart-pounding conclusion. As a piece of filmmaking, there’s plenty to commend Straw Dogs for. It requires little imagination to understand why the Criterion Collection included it in its now extensive catalogue.

As a piece of storytelling, however, Straw Dogs offers little beyond Hobbesian cynicism and machismo. The only hope in this world is violence, and even if one has to strangle his enemy with a bear trap, that’s all well and good. The well-depicted but banal view of violence Peckinpah bakes into the movie would be nothing more than a rote repetition of bleak views of human nature were it not for how Amy gets treated. The home invasion scene may be the touchstone of Straw Dogs, but it’s the rape scene in the center of the movie in terms of time and storyboard that lingers most.

Not long before the Sumner’s home is ransacked, Charlie and Norman enter the house after fooling David into being away and rape Amy. As Norman rapes her, Amy screams and shows her lack of consent in every way. With Charlie, she initially resists, but then she holds him closely and kisses him passionately, seeming to embrace that which she at first refused.

Dustin Hoffman as David Sumner and Susan George as Amy Sumner (IMDB)

Dustin Hoffman as David Sumner and Susan George as Amy Sumner (IMDB)

“It’s fucked up,” says Joshua Clover of this scene in the Criterion Blu-ray booklet. “What’s more, the film offers this sequence, if not for our crooked pleasure, then as a means to meditate on male violence as something like an absolute truth, beyond good and evil.” Clover, in attempting to justify the violence in Straw Dogs, exposes just how hard it is to do so for how it abuses Amy, and renders her without agency in the end.

The most important bonus feature in the characteristically thorough extras component of the Criterion Blu-ray is an interview with Linda Williams, a film studies professor at the University of California, who explores the gender politics of the film. Williams never outright calls the film feminist or anti-feminist; her thoughtful yet at times opaque commentary amounts to the claim that Straw Dogs provides a forum where people can talk about the issues of misogyny and sexual violence against women. That the movie sparks the conversation is undeniable; what is questionable is the brutality of its tactics. As Roger Ebert aptly put it in his initial review of the film in 1971, “The most offensive thing about the movie is its hypocrisy; it is totally committed to the pornography of violence, but lays on the moral outrage with a shovel.”

The other main defense of the rape scene pops up in Clover’s essay. “Yet to name the movie misogynistic is to mistake the degree to which it is a movie that it despises everyone, its viewers no less than its characters,” he explains. Nick Schager’s 2003 review for Slant argues, “The scene has long been condemned as proof of Peckinpah’s misogyny, and yet it actually fits snuggly into the film’s statement on the foulness and futility of violence.” Call this the “I’m not a feminist, I’m a humanist” line of reasoning.

Certainly, Peckinpah’s camera sees only the evil in this English village; even the seemingly inoffensive to a fault David is exposed as rage-filled as his wife’s rapists. The flash cuts Peckinpah employs when Charlie rapes Susan flash back to an earlier sex scene with David, clearly linking the two superficially distinct men. To Amy, David and Charlie exist in the same sphere, even though she committed her life to David. Elena Lazic writes, “Inadvertently or not, the film brings to light the hypocrisy of many men who at the time purported to adopt the ‘New Man’ attitude, stripped of violent affirmations of masculinity but still failing to care about the women around them.” Sex, in Straw Dogs, is an act of violence. And so the cycle continues.

Yet misogyny and misanthropy are not collapsible, nor are they mutually exclusive. Hatred for two groups of people can manifest in different ways. Peckinpah reveals David’s inner violence, but the home invasion sequence belongs to him and results in a victory that is both Pyrrhic and the only way out afforded by the movie. David’s base nature proves as bloodthirsty as Charlie’s, yet he’s the one driving off into the night in the end. Amy, meanwhile, remains a helpless target for much of the last sequence, up until David has to goad her into killing the man who is about to kill him. Say what you will about David, but he gets away. Amy, left behind in a ruined home, gets no such relief.

Straw Dogs is expertly shot, directed, and acted, but ultimately it retreads a philosophical view that’s been espoused long before it came to theatres, a view that no matter its manifestations peddles the same view that all but violence is for naught. And in the end, the same victims suffer.

Straw Dogs

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