Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Revisit: Straw Dogs

An ABC Pictures Release 1971

Directed by: Sam Peckinpah

Writing Credits:

Gordon Williams: (novel "The Siege of Trencher's Farm") (as Gordon M. Williams)

Sreenplay by: David Zelag Goodman and Sam Peckinpah

Plot description: A young American and his English wife come to rural England and face increasingly vicious local harassment.

Upon its release in 1971, director Sam Peckinpah was engulfed by a storm of controversy (what else is new?) surrounding his latest film, Straw Dogs. Peckinpah and his crew were attacked for the vicious and sick scenes of violence and rape that occur in the film. While many claime the scenes were too extreme for audiences, the film is not merely violent without purpose. Straw Dogs centers on David and Amy Sumner (played by Dustin Hoffman and Susan George), and their life in a small rural village in the UK. Sumner is an American mathematician who was given a grant to work in the film's setting, where he has recently overtook his wife's farm and where the couple now lives. In conducting renovations on the house the two are incessantly harassed by a violent collection of brutes who were commissioned to repair their home. Ultimately, the provocations turn to violent action and Amy Sumner is raped by the workers and their home assaulted by the men. David Sumner, ever the reluctant pacifist, is forced to defend his home and the lengths to which he goes are partly what give the film its gritty, extreme violence.

In Straw Dogs, Peckinpah (forever remembered for his unflinching and gruesome depictions of violence) is at the top of his game. What separates the film from his other works such as The Wild Bunch or Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia is that in addition to jarring, blood-soaked physical violence (as expected), the film presents equally disturbing forms of psychological, and psycho-sexual torment. Hoffman plays David Sumner perfectly, summoning his then famous Benjamin Braddock persona from The Graduate, except adding a vicious, demented, and downright schizophrenic twist. Sumner is a reclusive, shy scholar whose reticence to engage in action is clearly established from his very first appearence. However, as the film progresses we see that he and his wife torment each other frequently, generally through verbal stabs and sexualized exchanges. In these exchanges we notice a peculiar agency on both their parts, as though David's shyness is not always sincere - it is in part an act, an attempt to outsmart others by allowing them the ease of assumption. Similarly, Susan George plays Amy with a double-face: In one sense she is the naive sexbot who never graduated from the lecherous gazes she no doubt received as a youngster/to this day. In other scenes, such as one in which she taunts the construction workers by walking topless in her bedroom as a form of revenge on David, she clearly possesses the agency and intelligence that her appearances before David obscure.

The film manages to provide both of these characters, each with seemingly split personalities all while using a setting in which every local townsperson is downright nasty, hateful and violent. What Peckinpah is suggesting with the stereotypical scholar David and the deviant, sexy wife have the capacity for all types of behavior, and as the film progresses David proves that he is in fact no different than the menacing lunatics trying to murder him and his family.

Overall, Straw Dogs is an extremely provocative and compelling film, and careful viewing proves that the criticisms that it is a one dimensional, blood-fest are unfounded. Peckinpah's strengths are in his ability to convey the potential darkness of man, and contextualizing this darkness within an appropriately familiar and quotidian setting. Much like Cronenberg's A History of Violence (only 35 years prior), Peckinpah's film deconstructs audience identification and their notions of "justifiable violence" in a meta-discursive fashion while within the narrative he explores the intricate sexual tensions that exist between man and woman. Straw Dogs is a primal and damn near bestial film both in its story and Peckinpah's signature film aesthetic of harshness and brutality. Peckinpah's shots (filthy and drained of all pleasantness the countryside could provide), disorienting edits and movements (perfectly embodied during Amy's rape flashbacks at a church gathering as well as the break-in scene), and ability to generate both seemingly obvious exploitation and ambiguity in the same breath make this flick a must-see.

- Paul Walker

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