Straw Dogs (USA/UK, 1971)

Straw_dogs_movie_posterDirected by: Sam Peckinpah. Riiiiiight, so what’s going on with this movie? This movie has such a reputation as a shocking, culturally significant example of 70’s cinema, and when you mention it, people crinkle their noses so much, that I had gotten the impression that it was Peckinpah’s most violent film by far. I can see now that the nose-crinkling was due to the rapey parts, not the signature Peckinpah slow-motion, blood-and-guts violence, since it’s not nearly as violent as The Wild Bunch (I think the first and last 10 minutes of The Wild Bunch are more violent than most entire movies before or since). Obviously rape is much more disturbing to us than murder, but there’s a huge conversation we could have about the way that rape is depicted in different films, and the incredibly strange, distasteful and confused way it’s depicted here. But I think that this movie has more in common with The Wicker Man, the original 70’s version, or Deliverance, than the other iconic, violent 70’s films that draw its comparison—A Clockwork Orange, Dirty Harry, etc. Maybe it’s the idea of placing the bucolic, small-town English countryside as a place of menace—the idea that, to the jaded, post-JFK, post-MLK, post-American Dream, 1970’s audience, the idea of society in general, of other people, was so inherently distasteful and untrustworthy that it seemed really satisfying to see even a refuge from the “big city” turn into a nightmare—and furthermore, a nightmare that can only be overcome with violence—the idea that there is ultimately nowhere to run from the awfulness of modern society, and the only option is to kill (yikes!). Run-on sentence, I know, but I get really excited seeing this textbook stuff in play (literally, a lot of this is from a great book from Robert Ray, much of which was summarized by a great film studies prof I had). Aside from all of that generalized psychoanalyzing of the baby-boomer generation, I don’t know what point to take from this film. The tagline of “Every Man Has a Breaking Point” doesn’t seem to apply that well, since this nerdy American’s “breaking point” isn’t really well defined, mostly because the whole film is so incoherent, and its progression is so erratic and imprecisely executed that it’s really hard to follow any of these characters, and it’s even difficult to identify the Dustin Hoffman character as being the protagonist, really. Is he the protagonist? Or are the slimy townsmen the protagonists? Is the wife the protagonist? The only characters with a clear desire, a goal they want to achieve, are the rapists, and they achieve their goal—possessing the wife’s body. The “goal” at the end of catching the weird perv dude they suspect of abducting the girl, that seems like just an extra element to inflame the situation, something to be the “breaking point” so we can cathartically watch the nerdy guy turn into a violent guy and punish them. But to me, this feels forced, like the film is trying to induce the audience into slavering for violence—which a lot of films do—but in a way that seems so transparent and unearned that it just provides a commentary—intentional or not—on that whole process of the audience’s participation in violence. This may be what Peckinpah had in mind, but as far as masterful demonstrations of complex social ideas in film go, this is no Taxi Driver. Come to think of it, the violent climax of this film has more in common with Home Alone than anything else, so take that as you will.  I understand to a certain extent that it’s necessary to view a film in its own context, on its own aesthetic grounds, in its own place and time, but ultimately it’s really difficult for me to see this film as anything but a bad film. I say this at the risk of outing myself as a facile, one-dimensional twenty-first-century viewer with no appreciation for older films, but I would argue pretty confidently that this film is utterly inferior to The Wild Bunch, made two years earlier, in almost every way. Now, in fairness, I think the version I saw was a “special extended version” or something, but usually that means that it’s truer to the director’s original intent than the hack job rushed into print for the cinematic release. Either way, I’ll gladly stand corrected if someone wants to argue me down about this one, but at the moment, I’ll just say that this is a fascinating film, but not a great film.

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One response to “Straw Dogs (USA/UK, 1971)

  1. Pingback: List of Judgements, Anno Domini 2013 | Offhand Reviews·

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