..

STRAW DOGS

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Dustin Hoffman, Susan George
Director:  Sam Peckinpah
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.78:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  117 Minutes
Release Date:  March 25, 2003

“I will not allow violence against this house!!”

Film ****

Straw Dogs is a bleak masterpiece of pessimism and the ugly side of human nature, and also one of the most misunderstood films in American history.  It has been called everything from a fascist work of art to a celebration of the caveman mentality, but in truth, it is a rather personal extension of its director, whose main outlet for expressing his hatred of violence was to show it for what it really is.

That director is, of course, Sam Peckinpah, who at one time in his career, seemed the heir to the mantle of John Ford.  Like Ford, Peckinpah earned a reputation in Westerns, but unlike him, Peckinpah used the genre to explore and identify the less appealing natures of men.  His movie The Wild Bunch was a critical and popular success, while at the same time, one of the first mainstream American films to rid movie violence of its sterility.  Peckinpah wanted his audiences to realize that bullets spilled blood and caused pain…and sometimes, it takes quite a few of them to bring about death.

In 1971 he made Straw Dogs, which was probably the most natural extension of his views on violence as a human sickness, but not everyone was ready to take his vision in stride.  Frequently condemned and criticized by some while embraced by others for the wrong reason, Peckinpah had created with his film both a singular masterpiece and the picture that would cast a shadow over the rest of his career, sapping a lot of his energy into defending and explaining himself to those who saw no method in his madness.

It’s a film about machismo, with men and women being reduced to their most vile perceptions.  There are the “real” men, who sit around, drink beer, start fights, and commit rapes, and then there are those like David Sumner (Hoffman), whose pacifist ideals seem more a masking of cowardice than anything else.  The key woman is his wife Amy (George), who first appears sans bra in full leering view of the town and the movie audience.

David is an American mathematician who is living with his wife in a Cornish village in England while working under a grant.  Their marriage seems problematic from the start.  Even displays of affection are frequently interrupted by David’s attention to a heater, or winding the alarm clock, or whatever. 

Some of the local men, including one who used to be Amy’s lover, are employed by David to build a garage for their house.  When she complains of their stares (which she sometimes seems to defiantly invite), she blames not the men, but David’s inability to swing a hammer himself. 

This culminates in the film’s first shocking and controversial scene…while the “boys” invite David to go hunting but leave him stranded on the moor haplessly firing at passing birds, Amy gets raped by her old lover, but only seems to partly resist while welcoming it in other ways as an obvious contrast to David’s lack of passion.  But when a second worker becomes involved and it turns to sodomy, the film is set to begin its downward spiral into bloodshed and mayhem.

But in Peckinpah’s film, the rape is not a plot point.  We expect Amy to tell David about the experience and thus bring about the movie’s conclusion.  But she doesn’t.  The climax erupts when the town’s local simpleton accidentally kills the daughter of a notorious ruffian, and end’s up in David’s care while an angry mob storms his house in order to retrieve him.

And so, the non-violent David takes a bizarre stand to protect his house and becomes the thing he seems to hate most.  Ironically, he doesn’t hate it because it’s not a part of him, but because, as the film would argue, it IS, and a natural state inherent in all men.

So where do most audiences go wrong in their assessment of the picture?  Possibly because convention would lead to accepting David as the hero…yet when he makes his stand and the horrific violence erupts for real, it seems less like a triumph and more like a failure.  Peckinpah himself considered David the villain of the piece.  As portrayed by Dustin Hoffman, he’s not a very likable character.  Selfish, condescending, almost using his passive-aggressiveness as a way to incite rather than a means to an end, his final actions aren’t the unleashing of the hero inside, but of the demons that make up his true nature.

Peckinpah was a master at unleashing a film’s brutal power through his editing, and Straw Dogs is one of the best examples of film editing I’ve ever seen.  Montages that would become his trademark are both fascinating and horrifying, as certain acts are briefly slowed for impact, while at other times a few frames cut in here and there jar the audience into keeping grisly events in mind, while adding to our appreciation of the characters’ heightened states.  His technique is marvelous at the film’s climax, which helps to meld action, reaction, space and time into a concoction of tremendous suspense and potency.

To call this or any Peckinpah film a celebration of violence is to aim too low.  What he captured in his films was the bleaker side of man that thousands of years of evolution hasn’t managed to eradicate, and that’s whether we’re using sticks and stones or guns and missiles, human beings have a propensity towards violence and towards bringing about our own unhappiness.  In the end, it’s not a question of who is the “real” man…all men are made equal by the basest instincts of their nature.

Video ***1/2

This is a strikingly good anamorphic transfer from Criterion that really brings Peckinpah’s vision to life.  The whole film is given a look by the cool colors of the stonework and the lifeless plants and vegetation that seem to suggest perpetual fall.  All of these come across with integrity and clarity, with sharp images and a wonderful natural look that belies the 30 plus year age of the picture.  One or two of the darkest sequences show a little age in terms of some residue on the print, but these are infrequent and not a real distraction.  Overall, this is a tremendous digital presentation.

Audio ***

For a mono soundtrack, Straw Dogs is quite busy, from the most quiet and still moments to the intensity of the finale.  The added punches will make you forget you’re hearing only a single channel.  The audio is clean and clear, with superbly rendered dialogue, music and sound effects, and merits a rare extra star.

Features ****

Criterion scores again with a double disc package that’s filled to the brim with entertaining and informative extras.  Disc One, in addition to the movie, features a top notch commentary track by film scholar Stephen Prince, who offers a wealth of insight and information into the film’s styles and visual cues, while arguing very convincingly that this picture is Peckinpah’s masterpiece.  There is also an isolated music and effects track…as mentioned in the previous section, both of these aspects of the film are well done, and fans might appreciate this as a bonus listen.

Disc Two features an 82 minute documentary on Sam Peckinpah called Man of Iron, that offers plenty of interviews with his cast and crew members over the years including Kris Kristofferson, James Coburn and more.  There are two new interviews with actress Susan George and producer Daniel Melnick for even more insights.  A 26 minute “on location” piece highlights Dustin Hoffman on the set of the movie, and showcases among other things the actor’s under-appreciated sense of humor.  Rare behind the scenes footage is also included, along with pieces of Peckinpah’s correspondence written in defense of his film, which are very interesting reads.  Rounding out are a trailer and three TV spots. 

Summary:

Straw Dogs is a darkly repulsive triumph and a masterful, unflinching exploration of violence as human nature.  It’s an under-appreciated landmark from one of America’s most singularly visionary directors, and Criterion has given it first class treatment with this terrific looking and well-packaged double disc offering.  It’s marked as available for a limited time only, so don’t miss your chance to add this cinematic tour-de-force to your collection.