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Still from 1971's "Straw Dogs."

Straw Dogs September 7, 2017        


Sam Peckinpah



Dustin Hoffman

Susan George

Peter Vaughan

T.P. McKenna

Del Henney

Jim Norton









1 Hr., 58 Mins.

e can sense that something terrible is going to happen from the moment Straw Dogs (1971) begins. The setting is a grey, rustic cottage in middle-of-nowhere England, and the surrounding air is loudly static, pronouncedly quiet. The camera hovers above and around its actors (all excellent) with the leer of a sadist — particularly fixated on the bosoms and legs of women and the sad eyes and bodies of vulnerable men — as if daydreaming methods of destruction. Everyone who is not a central character licks their lips ominously, appearing to be backing a dastardly


scheme. Everyone who is a central character wears naiveté proudly, not so quick to sense unbalance. We wait for a monster to be unleashed once the tension cannot be built up any higher.


But there is no definable monster in Straw Dogs. Its hairy, fanged being is instead masculinity with a capital M, amplifying how dangerous a force it can become when poked and prodded a couple too many times. Here, violence is part of the aesthetic, not simply a catalyst for catharsis. It ponders how long a man can go through the motions of niceties before his machismo is threatened enough to turn him into a brute. How much of us, the film wonders, is comprised of chained-up savagery awaiting its release?


Callous and disturbing, Straw Dogs is pure provocation, emotionally and morally taunting us in ways not usually seen in mainstream cinema (particularly mainstream cinema circa 1971). It fits nicely within the oeuvre of Sam Peckinpah, the notoriously violent filmmaker behind some of Hollywood’s most nihilistic pieces, like 1969’s bloody revisionist Western The Wild Bunch and 1974’s bleak Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. It expands upon Peckinpah’s sentiment that men must readjust their ethical boundaries and their civility in order to survive in our corrupt, unforgiving world.


Men, then, are not much different than animals in Straw Dogs. A perfectly decent — or seemingly decent — person can descend into the madness of a lion protecting its young if they are menaced enough. And no one is ever made up of anything besides their contradictions: A man can consider himself a Pacifist but still have the capacity to resort to violence, and a woman can detest sitting through the misogynistic, sexually-charged catcalls of those attracted to her but still find a certain thrill in being an object of carnal desire.


Such mismatches make Straw Dogs an incredibly difficult movie to both watch and decipher. Difficult to watch because its displays of onscreen violence are gory and sometimes ambiguous (occasionally ugly, occasionally veiled in the sort of glossy euphoria that comes when a perceived right is being made); difficult to decipher because the characters never fit into a specific, simplistic “type,” and because its storyline either sees a man pushed to the brink or a man whose true nature is finally unchained following a traumatic experience. (In Straw Dogs, Dustin Hoffman is a scientist who, during the film’s last act, must defend his wife [Susan George] and his rural England home after a misunderstanding leads a group of sadistic men to violently try to weasel their way into his house.)


I admire the way Peckinpah turns the home-invasion thriller into a breeding ground for morally dubious ideas, causing us to really analyze, to paraphrase Emanuel Levy, our stances on violence as a part of human nature and violence as reenacted on the screen. I admire how Peckinpah refuses to clarify his objectivity, unendingly staging scenes that could define the designated good and bad characters in the film but pointedly do not. I admire how lines between predator and prey are blurred, and how even victims sometimes might not live up to the stereotypes to which we’ve grown accustomed. I cannot say I “liked” Straw Dogs. But I responded to it viscerally, shaken by its naked, disturbing power. 


Peckinpah has deliberately made a film meant to elicit great emotional response without humanity, a moral center, or value for life or one’s dignity. Critic Pauline Kael called it “the first American film that is a fascist work of art.” But “work of art” must be an emphasized title. Never has any movie in the history of cinema so compellingly commented on cinematic misogyny and violence by simply subverting a handful of age-old tropes and beliefs. We must ask ourselves: How easily have we been able to excuse violence as an effect of how it’s been presented to us?  A-

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