Straw Dogs (1971)


*. There’s something terribly limited about the world view of Sam Peckinpah.  Straw Dogs was inspired by anthropological studies of human territoriality. I’d like to think life is more complex than this, but that sort of analysis seems to be more in fashion than ever now.
*. The particular situation here is even more contemporary: the bourgeois nightmare of being “at the mercy of the contractors.” And we’re also more familiar with the terrible revenge of the nerds than we were in the early ’70s.
*. Despite the obvious limitations, however, I think the movie works, and it remains one of my favourites from this director. Though, as already noted, I’m not a big fan.
*. You know the rule: If you introduce a man trap into the first act of a drama, then . . .


*. Susan George is actually very good here, and it’s not an easy role. She has to change quite a bit over the course of the movie.
*. I think she looks much sexier with her glasses on, and can’t imagine why Charlie takes them off to kiss her.
*. There was, and continues to be, a fair bit of controversy over whether Amy “likes” being raped. I think it’s clear that she’s OK with the first one, and while that’s not a politically correct message to send, it does fit perfectly with the evolutionary framework of the film’s morality. She’s already decided her husband is a wimp and she doesn’t mind being bred by an alpha male who has signaled his virility with his demonstration that he can get into the couple’s bedroom anytime he wants (a signal Amy recognizes at once). The second rape, however, isn’t as good for what’s known in the profession as RS (reproductive success) because it’s redundant (and may not even be useful for the end of reproduction anyway, as it’s ambiguous if it’s anal rape). Then going back to her husband once he’s proven himself the strongest potential mate by killing all of her other suitors only makes sense. What else is she to do?
*. David Thomson: “Then there is the matter of women. Peckinpah on screen was a merciless misogynist. . . . Only one [woman] is central — in Straw Dogs — a revolting film of grinding menace, stilted, and very uneasy in England.”
*. So, does Peckinpah hate Amy? I don’t think so. You could argue David gets the worst of it for most of the film, and while he is redeemed by his code — the one that won’t let him give Niles up — she has her code as well, which (as discussed above) is to be successfully bred. Saving Niles, of course, is of no benefit to her at all in that regard. Parading naked by the window, or poking her way down the street without a bra, is.
*. Apparently Peckinpah did want us to think that Amy was buggered in the second rape. Of course, since nothing of such a nature can be shown outside of a porn movie, there has to be some kind of generally accepted shorthand for the act. And so the film euphemism for anal sex is any sex where the man takes the woman from behind. You’ll find that critics often speak confidently of scenes of anal rape when it isn’t at all clear that this is what is happening.
*. It’s interesting, I think, that David never finds out about the rape, though there is one point during the final assault where he suspects something is going on between Amy and Charlie. The reason I find this interesting, or at least one of the reasons I find this interesting, is that no one ever knows that Henry Niles has strangled Janice Venner either. You’d expect a movie this violent to play out like a standard revenge tragedy. But in fact the gang of thugs aren’t getting revenge for Janice’s murder, and David isn’t getting revenge for Amy’s rape. The violence has no real cause aside from the simple willingness to do violence, and (to bring in the evolutionary argument again) to protect the family breeding stock (both Amy and Janice).
*. The title has an obscure Chinese origin, which even when explained doesn’t explain anything. Leslie Halliwell thought this a big “fuck you” to audiences.
*. The symbolism is obvious — well, let’s face it, pretty much everything about this film is obvious — but it works. I like the intercutting of the bird hunt with the rape, the bedroom chess game, and even the torn newspaper trick (the question of how Amy can be made whole again would have been one for a medieval theologian).
*. But though obvious, the film isn’t without complexity. It is Charlie Venner who basically saves David and Amy by shooting his mate, and Henry Niles, however Lennie-like, has killed Janice.
*. Also nice is the contrast between the beautiful countryside and the ugly locals, who even have ugly names like Venner, Scutt, and Cawsey. This is just an unpleasant movie from start to finish.


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