Straw Dogs (1971)

Straw Dogs is the first film by Sam Peckinpah that I’ve seen. It’s a movie about an American mathematician, played by Dustin Hoffman, who goes with his wife, Susan George, to rural Great Britain while campus riots and political turmoil stir in the United States.

Peckinpah employs Hoffman as a very specific type of intellectual character. Peckinpah’s films have been said to deal with issues of violence and masculinity, and it’s difficult to deduct where he lies on the issues. Hoffman’s character is practically a eunuch due to his devotion to his work; he’s also terribly rude and out of touch with the general populace, and a downright bore.

His personal pitfalls are what lead his very attractive wife to go flirt with some locals. Again, Peckinpah has some dangerously ambiguous messages when she later is raped by these men. It’s again hard to determine whether the filmmaker is saying she brought it upon herself, an issue compounded by her eventual apparent acquiescence to the rape. It’s questionable scenes like this that make it hard to get behind Peckinpah ideologically.

Technically, Peckinpah knows what he’s doing. He sets a very deliberate pace for the film, one that leaves the audience sedated by a slow and steady first half in order to be shocked and alerted by the finale. The steady build up of how serious the problems for the couple are is accompanied by a well-crafted ominous and unfriendly tone. The whole movie feels claustrophobic and trapped in this small village with these unfriendly people. The film just feels dangerous.

The lead actors put in great performances. Hoffman plays one of his best roles as an awkward and mild-mannered professor. Hoffman’s demeanor only makes the final act of the film even more of a shock, as he unleashes venal rage in a murderous defense of his household. He is forced to defend his wife and shelter from a gang of locals after things go seriously wrong, and it is this violent defend-the-house situation, sort of an adult “Home Alone” scenario, that makes the film’s build-up worth it.

Peckinpah shows the brutality capable of someone when it comes down to kill or be killed, and makes a point of bringing this rage out of a man established as non-confrontational and generally placid. This violence certainly divides critics over this film and his others, and it’s unfortunate that the intellectual Hoffman apparently finds redemption through violence and murder.

Still, even if we don’t agree with the final message of the film, we must admit that this film brings up these questions of human nature and investigates them graphically. Straw Dogs is worth a look for a number of reasons – it’s a good example of a well-made slow-paced film, it’s made by an infamous filmmaker with excellent actors, and it brings up a number of issues to think about, even if your final opinions differ from the controversial ones of the film.

Final rating: 8/10

–James A. Janisse


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