“Straw Dogs” begins with a shot from above and descends deep down below to a group of children dancing in a graveyard. This is only the beginning of the film’s strange descent into hell on a deprived earth.
“Straw Dogs” is a thriller that could define the anger, alienation, and confusion of a generation in such an entertaining shell. It’s not the thrill-a-minute thriller we usually get. Rather it’s the wait patiently for the thrill kind of thriller.
“Straw Dogs” comes from the mind of Sam Peckinpah, director of some of the most brutal westerns ever made. It’s something of a modern day western set in the British countryside. The outlaw in this case is the constantly working American professor David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman). He decides to escape to a quaint English town with his troubled wife Amy (Susan George). Amy grows constantly more troubled as Dave continues to ignore her for his blackboard of equations.
The rest of the film is less of a plot and more of a series of unfortunate events unfolding. As they encounter more of the whiskey chugging, Christ loving locals, the more trouble they get into. As David and Amy’s marriage deteriorates, they fall into horrible events that involve rape and murder, and a final showdown with the townspeople.
“Straw Dogs” is one of those films that must be examined well below its surface to be truly appreciated. The film is well beyond some wild exploitation horror flick. Rather, it uses violence and sexual perversion to come to a larger point.
Peckinpah is a director who knows how to handle violence better than most others. I would say he was in the same range as Scorsese. When comparing “Straw Dogs” to his previous effort, “The Wild Bunch,” one can find the common, slow-motion violence. This effect is not use to amplify or enjoy the violence, but rather to allow each audience member to truly understand the fact that a life is ending right before their eyes. Yet despite the slow-mo emphasis of every bullet, most of the violence happens so quickly and out of nowhere that you could miss it.
What was even more controversial in “Straw Dogs” than the violence is that infamous rape scene. Beyond its graphic nature, what makes it really so controversial is that little smile Amy cracks during it. Could she be enjoying the act? Or is she just strangely enjoying the attention she hasn’t been getting from her own husband? Some will call it misogynistic, but I think a better word for it is flat out mysterious.
Mystery is one of the strongest elements of “Straw Dogs,” and something that continues to make it so fascinating to this day. The best parts of the movie are its many open-ended questions. The most interesting question lies in the film’s hero-villain complex. An obvious answer could be that the townspeople are the villains. But the even more interesting one is that it’s truly David. Even though he’s the protagonist, and in the end siege we seem to be rooting for him, he is no kind soul. He’s abusive and ignorant of the feelings of others. Not to mention he could be seen as self and, well, a little crazy deep down. This is also perhaps the film’s most disturbing element: this is a world where there is no clear hero to root for. Everyone might as well be the villain.
The hero-villain complex might not have worked out well here without the always amazing work from Dustin Hoffman. He begins the film with his typical, uptight Ben Braddock character and then transforms into something he’s never played before. Just as Hoffman doesn’t seem capable of playing a killer, David doesn’t seem capable of becoming one.
“Straw Dogs” is truly a product of the greatest era in American filmmaking. It comes from a time when directors still had control over what their projects would look like in the end. It was a time when boundaries were still looking to be broken down.
“Straw Dogs” contains a narrative structure commonplace at the time, though has been unfortunately abandoned today. Peckinpah is a filmmaker like Coppola and De Palma who doesn’t like to rush their stories. The siege, which seems like it could’ve been the film’s main plot, doesn’t occur until the film’s way end. Until that point, there is a lot of buildup. While some might find that time being introduced to characters grueling, it is absolutely necessary. Every little object we see, every person we meet, plays an essential role in that incredible finale. “Straw Dogs” is a film that embraces its tiny little details, and never abandons them.
“Straw Dogs” can be looked at as a bold thriller, and a time capsule. Without making a single political statement, the audience is exposed to a generation trying to escape reality while struggling to find and embrace identity. Its influence can be seen in everything from “Taxi Driver” to “Inglourious Basterds.”
When one thinks of a great film, they usually don’t pair it with slow pace and acts of horrible dehumanization. “Straw Dogs” proves that great films don’t have to conform to the audience’s idea of a great film in order to be truly great.
If You Liked this Movie, You’ll also Like: Five Easy Pieces, The Wild Bunch, Deliverance, Taxi Driver, Reservoir Dogs, Badlands, Inglourious Basters, Blood Simple, A Clockwork Orange, Carrie