American astrophysicist David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) is a wimpy pacifist who grows tired of the strife and violence raging across America. Along with his pretty young wife, Amy (Susan George), he travels to George’s hometown in Cornwall, England. Sumner quickly finds that beneath the idyllic scenery and veneer of small-town friendliness lie a clannish society based on violence and exclusion-ism. A group of townspeople begin playing a series of increasingly vicious pranks on David and Amy, culminating in Amy’s rape by two of the more repulsive townspeople (Del Henney and Ken Hutchison). Things still continue on, until David takes in the village idiot, Harry Niles (David Warner), after hitting him with a car and tries to save him from a mob who saw him abduct a young girl. David tries to sort the situation out peacefully, but before long he finds himself resorting to violence to defend himself and his home.
“Straw Dogs” is an amazingly powerful film, and a widely misunderstood one as well. Critics who seem unable to analyze films on anything but surface meaning accuse it of glamorizing sadism and violence; feminists harp on the film’s rape scene and the portrayal of Amy, denouncing the film as a chauvinist fantasy. Both readings of the film are wholly off-base. Although perhaps not as deep as some of Sam Peckinpah’s other works, it’s easily his best shy of “The Wild Bunch”, and deals with a deep (and disturbing) topic: humanity’s lust for and glorification of violence and death.
Say the name Sam Peckinpah to anyone and what comes to mind? In pretty much every instance, the answer is violence. Graphic violence, slow-motion shoot-outs with bright red blood spurting out of bullet wounds. This is a simplistic way to look at Peckinpah; in his best work (Ride the High Country, The Wild Bunch) he created deep themes and well-rounded characters worthy of a classic novel or play. Even some of his weaker efforts, like Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and Cross of Iron, have interesting ideas to present, even if not entirely successful. But, it is certainly true that violence – its effects, its terror, its place in society, and, most of all, social enjoyment of it – is a central theme of Peckinpah’s films. Merely judging “Straw Dogs” on the fact that it IS violent is childish and simplistic; it’s much more fruitful to address WHY Peckinpah opted to make it violent, and what he’s trying to say.
“Straw Dogs” is perhaps the ultimate distillation of Peckinpah’s views on violence. Peckinpah was an ardent fan of Robert Ardrey, the playwright-anthropologist who hypothesized that humans are inured to violence by instinctual urges rather than social pressure or upbringing. This is a very hard view to argue with, for in spite of hypocritical denunciation of violence in the media, the raging street violence, crime, warfare, and violent action movies, TV shows and video games, indicates that the human race thrives on and revels in killing – no matter how much we may like to think otherwise.
“Straw Dogs” endorses Ardrey’s world-view: the people of our out-of-the-way hamlet are easily driven to violence, their sins mostly overlooked by the hypocritically pious town leaders. Even a pacifist like David Sumner is not immune to the allure of murder; his claims of standing up principle (defending Niles, the murderous village idiot, from a mob) are dubious at best. The film has been read as a revenge fantasy a la Death Wish, which is ridiculous; Amy doesn’t even tell David about the rape. Rather, it’s a cumulative revenge; a man stuck in a small town with no friends, fed up with violence in his own culture, his taunting and torment here, his unhappy marriage to his wife, and his own weakness, allows his long-repressed rage to explode. In the end, even David Sumner is capable of horrific violence; not only that, he enjoys it. And the sheer visceral thrill of watching vile bad guys get handed their just deserts implicates us in the violence as well; none of us are innocent, and all of us are guilty.
Peckinpah’s direction is effective, presenting violence in all its glory and horror; he succeeds at showing an externally beautiful but inwardly hideous small town. The cast is good, if unspectacular: Dustin Hoffman embodies David Sumner as impotent professor and makes his transition frighteningly believable. Susan George is quite good as Amy, the confused, repressed young girl who married a guy who isn’t right for her. The supporting cast is adequate, with T.P. McKenna and Del Henney giving the strongest performances as the well-meaning but ineffectual Sheriff and the most sympathetic of David and Amy’s tormentors.
Straw Dogs is a powerful, disturbing mediation on violence, with a power and force that few films a possess. It is a true masterpiece.