#182 Straw Dogs
1971 // USA // Sam Peckinpah
Criterion Collection (LINK)
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Acknowledge the Violence
Once in a while, a film would emerge and shock me in complete awe with its depiction of ultra-violence and its lack of moral restraint. Sam Peckinpah’s controversial rape-and-home-invasion “horror” film Straw Dogs definitely belongs to that category, it’s chilling to the bone and condescending in every possible way. It was “notoriously” identified by film critic Pauline Kael as “the first American film that is a fascist work of art.” The film was condemned for being misogynistic, sadistic and male chauvinistic, as correlated to the character of the director Sam Peckinaph himself. Indeed Peckinaph didn’t shy away his baffling during interview by stating “there are women and then there’s pussy” and claiming Amy the rape victim in the film “asked for the rape.”
The words from Sam Peckinpah did not necessarily pronounce the film’s genuine interpretation. Violence has been displayed on screen overtly ever since the beginning of cinema to a point that the spectators are anaesthetised unknowingly nowadays. In my opinion, the bloodless, glorifying superhero films subconsciously promoted the resourcefulness of violence more effectively than the grotesque, sadistic Straw Dogs would do. Since the spectators would embrace the self-righteous violence undertaken by the heroes rather than feeling repulsive and nauseous to the depiction of violence. Additionally, the bleak and dark (literally) ending in Straw Dogs offered a denouncement of violence by explicitly portrayed the catastrophes and thereby invoked a distastefulness that could discourage violence in contrary.
Undeniably there are ambiguities in the narrative that account for the resulting disparate responses among critics and audiences. The film deals with the gradual escalation of animosity between the newly arrived American mathematician David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) and the locales in the Cornwall village where David’s wife Amy (Susan George) grew up in. The strangeness and cynicism of the local laborers, from Amy’s old acquaintance Charlie Venner (Del Henney), the giggling ratcatcher Chris Cawsey (Jim Norton), to the town’s drunken old thug Tom Hedden (Peter Vaughan) or the retarded pedophilic idiot Henry Niles (David Warner), suffused the film with an uncanniness from the very beginning. Even the supposedly “good people”, like Reverend Hood (Colin Welland), has an air of hypocrisy in his performance. Except the fair-minded and righteous one-armed Major John Scott (T. P. McKenna), the townspeople radiated an other-worldliness that preceded later horror films situated at a remote British village like The Wicker Man (1973) or An American Werewolf in London (1981).
But if Straw Dogs took the routine trope of “good vs evil” that had predominated during, and restricted by, the act of production code, the film would be far from as provoking as it is now. The ambiguity came from the concealed diabolical nature of David Sumner. The couple moved to Amy’s home town partly to elude the upheaval in America concerning the Vietnam War, one took it as a proof of David’s cowardice or pacifism and registered his final outrageous acts as a manly and necessary change under constant oppression, thus condemning the film itself in promoting the violence. As brutal and horrific the final act was, I can’t find a single movement of glorification. Instead, David succumbed to his disguised and subconsciously repudiated wickedness that had occasionally slipped through in his ill-treatment to his wife and condescending behavior to the towns folk who are deemed inferior in his intellectual mind. What the film showed is how David eventually let his demon out.
Straw Dogs depicts the eruption of David’s inner demon (which would be another intriguing topic correlating to the class conflict), and it’s no less on illustrating the deteriorating marriage and the victimized woman. Indeed, albeit the playful sexual interaction between David and Amy, David’s behavior of superiority is highly palpable. The infamous sexual assault inflicted upon Amy by Charlie, and immediately followed by Riddaway (Donald Webster), is often the point of argument of misogyny. At first Amy apparently refused Charlie’s advancement and struggled under his physical brutality, but there’s a point where pleasurable feeling and tenderness are noticeable in Amy. Susan George’s tremendous performance is meticulously calibrated to invoke ambiguity, which is further supplemented by the rapid crosscutting between the assailant Charlie and the meek and impotent husband David who was lured away and left alone in a fraudulent hunting trip at the time of the rape. Peckinaph’s intention is to externalized Amy’s psychological state by juxtaposing the images of two men that are intimately connected with her (the film hinted at a past history between Amy and Charlie). Before the rape, Amy was obviously sickened by David’s ineffectuality to stand up for the murder of their cat and his condemnation on her childishness, in which she retaliated by sabotaging his blackboard of mathematical equations. As a result, one could anticipate a possibility that Charlie was a replacement to David in Amy’s mind, notwithstanding both were faulty in characters.
Understanding the complex psychological state of David and Amy is crucial to apprehend the film’s violence. By all means Amy is the most innocent one. It’s never a fault to be sexually open-minded and wearing no bra but a sweater in public, her somewhat childish behaviour could be explained as a mean to seek David’s attention who had indulged in his study continually. That’s another sign of a crumbling marriage, which reached a breaking point during the climactic siege of their home led by Tom and Charlie’s gang. David’s reason for prohibiting their entry was to protect Harry Niles who was their primary target, while Amy’s previous sexual assault by them was never acknowledged. But there’s hardly any interaction between David and Harry beforehand to support David’s decision, so it’s more rational to interpret his sudden act of bravery as a breaking point from the accumulation of humiliation and challenge befallen upon his own authority and territory, thus David eventually resorted to his own demon in order to preserve his space of masculinity. And Amy, preferred to give up Harry Niles, intended to exit their home and thereby violated David’s space of masculinity, so she was subsequently beaten up by her husband as well. Her call for help to both David and Charlie near the end of confrontation was the indication that their marriage reached the point beyond repairable.
The film ends with David driving with Harry into the darkness, uncertain on where they were heading. The house was inhabitable after all windows being smashed, doors being broken, people being killed, and his wife was now completely alienated. I took that as the final statement on the outcome of violence, no dialectical fable, no triumphant and glorifying victory over evilness. Straw Dogs proves that violence is unavoidable, eventually we should not repress or deny but learn to acknowledge it as much as the film does.