Review by Michael Jacobson
Dustin Hoffman, Susan George
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Audio: DTS HD Mono
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.78:1
Features: See Review
Length: 117 Minutes
Release Date: March 25, 2003
will not allow violence against this house!!”
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
is a strikingly good high definition 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.
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.
scores again with a package that’s filled to the brim with
entertaining and informative extras. It 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.
There is also 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.
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.