Timid American mathematician David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) and his new wife Amy (Susan George) have moved into an old farm house on the outskirts of her hometown. David is treated as an ‘outsider’ by the locals in town and particularly by the ones working on his farm buildings. Although he is aware of their hostility towards him, David chooses to ignore it. Adding to the tension is an implied relationship history between Amy and one of the locals. The people of the town have their own unresolved issues surrounding Henry Nyles (David Warner), an accused rapist of a local child. He was acquitted by the local magistrate, a man who befriends David. As David tries to concentrate on his work, neglected Amy grows bored and starts to play games with him, his work and eventually the local builders…
Sam Peckinpah builds the tension and sense of dread by increments throughout the first hour of the movie. We know something has to give and eventually something bad is going to happen, it’s inevitable. The transformation of David from the timid mild-mannered man we are introduced to is subtle but Peckinpah gives us wonderful hints that there is more beneath the surface. There is an excellent scene mid-way through the movie where a drunk David engages the local reverend in what appears at first to be friendly banter but quickly escalates into barely restrained hostility. David clearly enjoys the interaction, Amy does not.
Dustin Hoffman excels as David. Made during a period where he was consistently great; after ‘The Graduate’ and ‘Midnight Cowboy’ and just before ‘Lenny’, ‘Papillion’ and ‘All The Presidents Men’ he plays David pitch perfect. Susan George is entirely believable as Amy, she plays her as strong, vulnerable, erotic and selfish; she is a complex character and George is brave in her best role.
SPOILER ALERT: The most infamous scene in the movie involves the rape of Amy by two of the locals. Her ex-boyfriend rapes her but Amy starts to enjoy it, or does she? It is played out as both shocking and erotic until she is then immediately savagely raped by a second man. This is the scene that has baited censors and various groups for almost 40 years. I’ve seen the full uncensored scene as well as the edited cut version (on Fox, Sunday the 10th April) and what the censors have done is make the scene worse by cutting it. The edited version actually implies more complicity on behalf of Amy, surely the opposite of the original scenes intention. It is not a particularly graphic scene in comparison to similar fare in more modern movies and is played out for the most part in close-up on Amy’s face.
David is unaware that his wife has been raped when he defends his home against the intruders. Because of that, Straw Dogs can’t be labelled as a straight forward revenge film. David isn’t fighting for Amy or even to protect Henry Nyles from the baying mob, he is fighting to protect his manhood, his home being a physical symbol of it. When David does fight back he is initially smart, working out how to deceive the intruders and defend his home; his emotional state and actions then descend into the purely primal. He reacts on instinct; his actions are as horrific as his attackers as the movie ends in a chaotic violent fight to the death. David wins but loses his wife and home.
Love it or hate it, and most people apparently hate it, Straw Dogs (1971) is an important and essential film. It is constantly compared to ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (1971) but shares little in common with it apart from scenes of rape and violence; and of course censor baiting. Two other films from that era that it has more in common with are ‘Deliverance’ (1972) and ‘The Last House on the Left’ (1974); both with scenes of rape and violence however as with Straw Dogs the leads undergo a transformation and end up fighting for their lives.
Strange that the film which depicts rape and violence as a ‘hobby’ (Clockwork Orange) is critically acclaimed while the movies that depict those acts as horrific are labelled as offensive and misogynistic.
Quality: 4 out of 5 stars
Is it Good: 5 out of 5 stars