DVD Review Of Straw Dogs
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 3/6/07
If there has ever been a more over-interpreted and stolidly misinterpreted film than director Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 Straw Dogs, I’ve yet to encounter it. Yes, films like Citizen Kane and 2001: A Space Odyssey have had more ink spilled over them, but most of the ideas tossed about are on the money, and far less is read into them. Also, they have one big thing going for them that Straw Dogs does not. They are great films. While Straw Dogs is not nearly as good a film as its hagiographers claim- for Peckinpah had all the subtlety and psychological depth of a sledgehammer, nor is it as irredeemable a bit of pornography as it detractors insist, it is, above all, a very dull and mediocre film. This is not a word- dull, that has likely ever appeared in a review of the film, but what else can one call a film that telegraphs its end in the first twenty minutes, and has all the realistic character development of a Warner Brothers Roadrunner cartoon? Excuse me: let me rescind that. Wile E. Coyote, at least, plumbs some true existential angst.
By contrast, the nearly two hour long Straw Dogs is not even that innovative and certainly not ‘naturalistic,’ for the ultra-violence it depicts was done better (and strangely, even more realistically) in Stanley Kubrick’s deeper and darker humored A Clockwork Orange- released the same year, and earlier by Peckinpah, in The Wild Bunch, by Arthur Penn, in Bonnie And Clyde; its scenes of cretins trying to break into the lead characters’ home are pale echoes of George Romero’s masterful low budget Night Of the Living Dead, and even the Vincent Price horror classic, The Last Man On Earth (and it’s remake, the Charlton Heston vehicle The Omega Man); and the revenge theme done more engagingly in Wes Craven’s campy debut film Last House On The Left- sans the guilty pleasure, and more deeply in the film Craven was inspired by, Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. It acted, however, as a springboard for other films showing increasingly stylized violence, such as Deliverance (1972), Death Wish (1974), and Taxi Driver (1976)- films with different styles and artistic merits. As well, the film’s politics and psychology are badly dated. This is especially true in the infamous ‘double rape’ scene. Compared to Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy, released a few months later, Peckinpah’s motivations seem downright silly, which is especially noteworthy since Hitchcock built a career on Freudian pseudoscientific motivations for his criminal characters, yet abandoned that all for realism in his underappreciated 1972 gem.
Not surprisingly, the misinterpretations of the film start right away with the title. It is commonly assumed that Peckinpah took the title from a passage from the Tao Te Ching:
Heaven and Earth are impartial;
They see the ten thousand things as straw dogs.
The wise are impartial;
They see the people as straw dogs.
The straw dogs referred to were tiny effigies used in ceremonies that were burnt and discarded at the end. But, if this is the true source, the title is rather lame, for none of the characters in the film serve any vital role in any ritual. Also, linking mediocre art to greater source material is a standard way that many artists try to cover their failures with a patina of depth. A more likely provenance for the title comes from the simple colloquial American slang that a straw dog is a seemingly frightening thing that turns out to not be so frightening- i.e.- a dog whose proverbial bark is worse than its bite. This interpretation gives the title an added irony that seems more in keeping with Peckinpah’s temperament. After all, the bespectacled lead character, David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman), a mathematician with a grant, ends up having a bite far worse than his almost nonexistent bark.
Yet, even if the title can be seen in a deeper and more ironic light than most critics give it credit for, the film fails because the screenplay, by Peckinpah and David Zelag Goodman- based upon Gordon Williams’ novel The Siege Of Trencher’s Farm, is simply very poorly written; larded with one dimensional caricatures- especially of the cretinous male townsfolk (who sing drinking songs of sex with sheep and are fascinated with rats), implausible actions, and the male fantasy character in the form of David’s big breasted nubile blond goddess English wife Amy (Susan George). Worse, the acting does absolutely nothing to liven up the bad writing, as Dustin Hoffman turns in what may be his worst acting performance up until the ridiculously bad Rain Man. Legend has it that Hoffman loathed the film and took the part only for the money, and it shows onscreen. Susan George is just another blond bimbo, despite some critics’ attempts to make her performance seem notable. Ask yourself this, as you watch the film: is there any scene that George is in that one could not imagine any other actress doing as well or better?
The actual plot is very slight. The Sumners have left the U.S. for Amy’s Cornish hometown, but he is resented by the xenophobic locals- the ostensible reason that he is a nebbishy American who has bagged a local goddess who spurned a former beau, Charley Venner (Del Henney). Amy is a terminal flirt who wears no bras, struts her stuff in front of the local Neoliths, including flashing her lovely breasts out a window at Venner’s workmen pals, hired by the Sumners to fix their garage roof, out in the countryside. If she is a local, should she not know that they are lustful monsters? Does this not suggest that she wants their attentions, and the violence concomitant with it? Or is she really as dumb as she seems? David seems to be a wimp who has no convictions on politics- such as the Civil Rights movement or the Vietnam War, which the locals query him on. Those locals include Venner’s cretinous pals Cawsey (Jim Norton), Riddaway (Donald Webster), and Norman Scutt (Ken Hutchison), and the patriarch of a sick family, named Tom Hedden (Peter Vaughan), whose teen son Bobby (Len Jones) and teen daughter Janice (Sally Thomsett) are incestuously involved, and like voyeuring on the Sumners. Janice also apes Amy’s over the top sexuality, by showing off her younger charms, and trying to seduce the local idiot, Henry Niles (an unbilled David Warner) who was once guilty of molesting young girls, and whose brother John (Peter Arne) has avoided institutionalizing him. Tom Hedden loathes the Niles clan, even though his family is as sick. In fact, all of the English villagers are sick, in some way, including Amy, and this fact shines through the film in her claims to hate being ogled, yet does everything to encourage it. The lone exception to this seemingly genetic inbreeding is the town constable, Major John Scott (T.P. McKenna).
Amy tries to spur David to act more manly, and this is especially true after the locals kill the Sumners’ cat, and hang it in their closet. Some critics claim David killed the cat, but it’s clear from his initial reaction to it that he is wholly unaware of it, for it is the same visceral reaction he had to earlier violence at the local bar. She subverts his attempts to corner the workmen into admitting their deed, and, in reaction, he accepts their invitation to go birdhunting the next day. This is when Venner goes to the Sumner home and the infamous ‘rape scene’ occurs. Unfortunately, the character of Venner does not rape Amy, just as there is no rape scene of Tippi Hedren, by Sean Connery, in Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie. It is a classic violent sex/seduction act. She says no, but her body says yes, as she leans up against Venner, and rubs against him. When he rips her robe, and he tosses her to the couch, she simply lays there and makes pouty lips at him, before writhing her body to him to accept his thrust, long before one could declare such an action a mere physical response to orgasm. She does not scream nor resist, and gets even more passionate as the violence rises. Feminists may not like it, but many women do get turned on by rough sex, where a man dominates them, especially after they’ve put up token resistance. When he penetrates her she has visions of sex with David, and when he comes they lay side by side, cuddling. This is not a rape. She loved the sex, and only hated her loving it, for Venner is more overtly manly than David- right down to his brawny chest hair. When he is done, however, he becomes an accessory to rape when his buddy Norman wields a gun and Venner holds Amy down as Norman doggies and sodomizes her. Only during this scene is she being fully resistant. But, we have seen her at her worst- the eternal cocktease and harridan who loves emasculating her husband, the faithless wife who invites violent sex to ‘get back’ at David’s impotence (if not sexually than emotionally), and then the bitch who gets her comeuppance when Venner assists his crony in sodomizing her. Of course, all the men in the film will get far worse than Amy does, but Feminista apparently stopped watching the film at this point, content that they had ‘proof’ of the film’s and director’s intent.
There are some brief scenes which show her laden with guilt and
shell-shock, when the Sumners go to a church outing, after David intellectually
destroyed the local preacher, but that leads into the final scenes, where Henry
is taken out and seduced by Janice after she, yet again fails to attract
David’s attentions. There, in a barn, she is accidentally strangled by Henry,
reminiscent of the scene from John Steinbeck’s novel, Of
Mice And Men, where the brutish idiot Lenny accidentally kills a girl.
Running away, Henry is hit by David as he drives Amy home in the foggy night.
They take him to their home where the lynch mob of cretins longs to string him
up over the disappearance of Janice. David succeeds, at first, in tossing them
out- ironically defending the idiot against the two men who he does not know
assaulted Amy, and who are even more loathsome than the idiot pedophile, but Tom
Hedden has his boys begin an assault to get back in. Finally, Major Scott
arrives, but Tom Hedden accidentally kills him in a rage, and the rest of the
cretins, having nothing left to lose, do their best to get into the home.
Susan resists David’s attempts to save the idiot, and betrays him by trying to let the cretins in, until David acts ‘manly,’ slaps her, and she falls into line. He explains that they have nothing to lose, after the death of the Major, and that if they get in they are both dead, along with Henry. Still, she does everything she can to undermine David, who resorts to household appliances and boiled oil to fend off the cretins. Soon, they get in, and David and Amy lock themselves away further into the house- just as in Night Of The Living Dead. David ends up killing all of the men, and when he tangles with Venner, daring Amy’s ex to shoot him after he’s beaten another man to death, Amy calls out for David and Charley when Norman tries to rape her again. David and Venner run upstairs and confront him. Norman suggests that Venner kill David and the two of them do Amy again. Instead, Venner shoots and kills Norman, he and David wrestle, and David kills Venner by nearly decapitating him with a steel bear trap.
Then, in the tritest fashion, just as David thinks they are safe, a final
cretin attacks him, and after much fear and deliberation, Amy finally shoots the
last of them. The triumphal David- as if there was ever any doubt?, picks up his cracked eyeglasses, leaves Amy alone, and drives
Henry off to the authorities. The ending is famed, and justly so. In the car,
Henry says, ‘I don’t know where I live.’ David smiles and says,
‘That’s all right, neither do I.’ If only the rest of the film had the
subtlety and enigmatic poesy of that ending Straw Dogs would truly be the
masterpiece its acolytes proclaim.
It’s not, for a number of reasons, aside from the predictable and trite characters and plot. The cinematography, by John Coquillon, and the editing, by Paul Davies, Roger Spottiswoode, and Tony Lawson is not up to earlier Peckinpah standards. The use of slow motion, in this film, is not nearly as effective as in The Wild Bunch because it extends the triteness and lame situations, rather than focusing on the pain. When Venner and David fall down a stairwell struggling over his rifle, there is simply no need for it because a) it is in the dark, b) it releases some of the adrenaline the scene has been building, before the climax, and c) it’s simply not filmed that well. Similarly, earlier, when Venner slaps around Amy, before their sex scene, there is no reason for it, because it does not detail her pain nor eroticize her body. Similarly, when Venner penetrates Amy, we see shots from her point of view, which are clearly filmed in an attractive fashion- another point which argues against her supposed horror at being raped. This is all onscreen and not too difficult to miss…unless you are a critic merely aping others or popular sentiment and not really watching the film. The score, by Jerry Fielding, neither heightens nor distracts, thereby rendering it functional, at best.
The two disk DVD, by The Criterion Collection, is a good package
that has some clunker features in it. On Disk One is the film and a terrible
commentary by film scholar Stephen Prince. The film is well transferred, in a
1.78:1 aspect ratio, and includes an isolated music and effects track, for
unknown reasons. Yet, Prince’s commentary may be the worst I’ve ever heard,
even worse than the insipid Annette Insdorf’s execrable commentary on Krzysztof
Kieslowski’s Blue. It’s as if every bad critic for the last
three-plus decades has been distilled into this inane monologue. There is not a
single aspect of this film that he does not misinterpret, even when the evidence
contradicts him onscreen as he speaks, for Prince is not interested in objective
analysis, but hagiography of a film he calls a masterpiece. For instance, he
parrots Peckinpah’s claim that David is the villain of the film. Why?
Well, neither director nor critic can explain that, but it sounds provocative,
and is the sort of red herring that artists like to toss out to the stolid to
feed their interest in art that otherwise does not engage on its own merits.
Thankfully, he does reject the idea that David is the Machiavellian cat killer
who manipulates all the violence in the film.
Unfortunately, he does buy into the noxious notion that all art is a
biographical corollary to the artist, that David is somehow a representation of
Peckinpah, his own rages and fears of masculinity, and his own ambivalence
toward marriage. Thus, he sees the Sumner marriage as a bad one, although we see
that theirs is actually the only successful male-female relationship in the
whole film, even more so than a brief snippet of the local preacher and his
wife. Simply because they argue and snipe does not mean the marriage is bad,
which only begs the obvious- has Prince ever been married? For, if not, it would
explain much of that misinterpretation’s provenance. At film’s end, when Amy
takes a few moments before shooting the last assailant, who is attacking David,
Prince sees this as evidence for their bad marriage, when it’s clearly the
character’s fighting through her trauma to try to act. When David also brings
Henry in, rather than comfort Amy, Prince also sees this as their marriage
unraveling, yet David is also shell-shocked, as well as betrayed by Amy a number
of times. To expect him to act normally, in the abnormal reality of the film, is
simply silly. Likewise, he takes a hard line on the supposed rape of Amy by
Venner, mouthing the usual banalities and misinterpretations, even though- as
stated, it’s clearly not rape. Much of his ‘analysis’ is of the sort where
an egghead reads some deep significance into an eye gouge in a Three Stooges
Disk Two is better, and has all the supplements, including an 82 minute documentary called Sam Peckinpah: Man Of Iron, a 26 minute long vintage film of Dustin Hoffman on the set of Straw Dogs, behind the scenes footage, interviews with Susan George and the film’s producer Daniel Melnick, selected correspondence between Peckinpah and his critics (Time magazine’s Richard Schickel and The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael) and viewers, as well as three tv trailers and the original theatrical trailer for the film. The booklet insert comes with a 1974 Canadian print interview with Peckinpah by Andre Leroux, and an essay by poetaster Joshua Clover, which is almost as ridiculously bad as the commentary by Prince. At one point he even claims this:
One might do best by calling it a war movie; Straw Dogs is unthinkable without recourse to Vietnam. Made in 1971, little illusion left about the nature of America’s involvement in Southeast Asia, the movie invokes the conflict namelessly almost from the start. The campus troubles Amy and the ‘uncommitted’ David have left behind can be nothing other than anti-war protests.
This is a patent absurdity. It’s like claiming Paradise Lost is a critique of Cromwellian England, yet lacking anecdoture for support. Merely because David has left the U.S., and is an American in a foreign land does not evoke Vietnam War parallels, for he is not a Colonialist. But look at the feeble attempts of Clover to justify his claim. Well, we know that David has also gotten a grant, which could have had residency requirements, plus he’s simply a White Liberal type with a penchant for travel, as we learn. But even if we accept that he came to England to avoid the draft, or make a political statement, the rest of the demented violence of the cretinous Cornish locals has no direct parallels to Vietnam. None.
In his defense, the stolid Clover is not the only critic who has butchered their interpretation of the film. The infamous Pauline Kael loved the film, but mislabeled it ‘fascist,’ as if a band of local loonies are the equivalent of a nationwide junta, and many of her female acolytes condemned the film and director for ‘misogyny.’ Even the powerful Roger Ebert muffed his criticism of the film. While he correctly thought it one of Peckinpah’s weaker films, especially in relation to The Wild Bunch, his reasons were unfathomable. He wrote: ‘The most offensive thing about the movie is its hypocrisy; it is totally committed to the pornography of violence, but lays on the moral outrage with a shovel.’ The very thing that sticks out about the film is that it is amoral. The characters are shown doing crazy and violent things and little consequence is shown. That is not hypocrisy, it is anarchy.
Overall, the film is well crafted, but lacks any real depth or power, and is especially wan with all the decades of intervening filmic treatises on violence. Peckinpah was simply not that deep a filmmaker. And lesser films on violence are almost always dull. This film proves the rule. In a sense, he was a more barbaric version of Alfred Hitchcock, who was similarly fascinated with violence; although Hitchcock’s films were generally less scattershot in quality than Peckinpah’s. Neither man, however, had the depth to truly plumb artistic greatness. If they ever achieved it, however briefly, it was happenstance, not design. Straw Dogs is plagued by its simpleminded script, and unrealistic characters and situations, and wallows in gray mediocrity.
But, its own seriousness is what makes the film far less enjoyable than, say, Last House On The Left or Night Of the Living Dead. The former film is so silly and unpretentious that its images and violence lodge in the viewers’ mind- such as the infamous fellatio biting scene, while the latter film is simply relentless pedal to the metal violence that is inexplicable. Straw Dogs should have been more realistically grounded, more campy, or more straightforward in its naked bile for mankind. As it is, it sits on the fence, and is so predictable that it’s actually dull. There’s not a moment where a viewer can core into any of the characters and care for them, or even identify with them. Note that Peckinpah will show the starts of violence, but never the results- we see no real penetration of Amy, by either assailant, and we do not see David’s actual violence. The camera always looks away- even when he is tossing grapefruits at his cat. While this may seem commendable on the director’s part, or a sense of ethos, it also neuters the visceral effect of the violence, so that we get, in effect, a serial killer of a film tidied up for children, thus showing all the fun of violence with none of the consequences. Thereby it is not a statement of ethics, merely an unjustified and poor artistic choice.
In short, being controversial does not always equate with quality, and Straw Dogs seems more and more like a puerile attempt to simply shock (which it no longer even does), yet one with pretensions of something deeper- it is an ok B film with a better pedigreed director and A film production values. Ironically, that very lack of pretense is why a film like Last House On The Left works better, and a film like Night Of The Living Dead touches far deeper into the human psyche and far richer into true art. Shock filmmaker David Fincher (Fight Club), a manifest Peckinpah acolyte, once said, ‘I’m always interested in movies that scar. The thing I love about Jaws is the fact that I've never gone swimming in the ocean again.’ Well, aside from his love of a rather routine and trite Steven Spielberg thriller (though the director seems to have gone all downhill since then), Fincher’s dictum is not met here, for even the controversy of the alleged ‘double rape’ and the violent ending seem, nowadays, to be much ado over very little, as not a single image sticks out in viewers’ minds, not even the film’s blurred opening of kids in a playground, which quotes Peckinpah’s earlier The Wild Bunch. When an artist cannot even equal his earlier glories it’s a sure sign of a lesser work of art. That’s what Straw Dogs is, no matter how one interprets its inner workings.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]
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