Straw Dogsrecommended viewing

I’ve had all I can stand, I can’t stand no more
Sam Peckinpah
Dustin Hoffman, Susan George, Del Henney, Peter Vaughan, Peter Arne
The Setup: 
Americans staying in rural England do not fit in with the locals… AT ALL.

This one lingered on my list for a while, one of those movies I knew I’d probably like and was saving for when I needed a sure-fire hit, but like most good movies, it turned out to be good and rich in a way I never would have expected. By the way, the title comes from the Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu, who wrote, "Heaven and earth are not humane, and regard people as straw dogs." So let’s not dawdle, and get down to it.

So this black and white opening gives way to an out-of-focus teeming movement that looks like insects or works crawling, but is soon revealed to be children playing outside in a graveyard. David Cronenberg did this same trick at the beginning of The Fly, and I’d lay money this is where he swiped it from. We then see Susan George as Amy walking to her car in a white sweater and no bra, her nipples poking out. The local workmen gape openly, but she doesn’t react or cover up. Her husband, Dustin Hoffman as David, tells her he’s going to run into the pub for some cigarettes. Amy gets in the car, and is approached by Charlie Venner, a large local who she had a previous affair with. He tells her he’ll be coming out to their house the next day to make some repairs, but his manner is very threatening, and it’s clear that he didn’t want their relationship to end—especially over such a dweeze as David. In the background of some of these scenes, you can see a line of people standing and watching, and maybe they’re watching the interaction of the characters, but what seems more likely is they are locals standing by to watch the location shooting in their town.

Meanwhile, David—young Hoffman, before he became smug and grating and you just want to bash his head in—goes into the pub, where Tom Hedden, father of many and local violent drunk, is being cut off from drinking [this is midday, btw]. He grabs the bartender’s hand and breaks a glass inside it, then storms behind the bar and pours himself another. David comes in, walking between a man playing darts and the board, and asks for “Any kind of American cigarette.” Tom offers to buy David’s cigarettes, and David accepts, not staying to have a drink with anyone, but throwing a bit of money down on the bar to cover Tom’s drink. Tom and his sons get thrown out, and are walking down the middle of the road, as locals do in a small British town. Amy nearly runs them down in his white convertible on his way out of town, not slowing down for a second. Okay, so we’re only like ten minutes, and already this thing is explosively tense! That’s Sam Peckinpah for ya!

The couple arrive at home, necking obnoxiously, which is watched by the local men working on the roof of their barn or whatever. Amy has brought, in town, a man-trap, which is like a huge bear trap. They set it and place it above the fireplace as a decorative element. I have no idea whether that will come to be used later in the film—do you? Anyway, two of the guys working on the roof try to be friendly with David, but he just treats them like servants. They discuss among themselves how they’d like to fuck Amy, and discuss how Charlie once did.

David sees Amy outside laughing with the workers, and feels suspicious. When she comes back in, she admits the men said they find him ‘strange.’ He is some kind of mathematician, and came there to Cornwall to work, working out massive formulas on a huge blackboard. You watch David and Amy interacting, the way they come together affectionately and suddenly disengage, and “Jokingly” mock each other while truly gnashing their teeth and rolling their eyes, and you start to think “Boy, this couple really hates each other,” but you’re not sure if the movie is going to come out with it. You get another clue when David starts chucking tomatoes and then grapefruit at her cat, the one she’s always calling “Kitty kitty kitty” after, driving him insane while he’s trying to concentrate. He makes moves on her before bed, and just when she’s all hot and bothered, cuts off to take off his watch and set the alarm clock. When they finally get around to screwing, the young, pretty girl in town [Tom’s daughter] and her brother stand outside watching. Soon Amy is wandering in to talk to David while he’s trying to work, and he finally says “I love you, Amy, but I want you to leave me alone.” She makes random marks among his scientific figures on the blackboard, then goes upstairs and consciously lets Venner see her topless. This one’s gonna take a lot of marital therapy.

Also hanging around town are this attractive young girl, Janice, daughter of Tom Hedden, the violent drunk mentioned earlier. She foolishly flirts with Henry Niles, the local semi-retarded goon, who has a history of violently making advances on girls. Hedden has warned Niles’ brother to keep a close watch on him, but the brother doesn’t seem to feel that’s his responsibility. Meanwhile, the mayor and priest come to visit David and Amy. David refuses to give any money to the church, refuses the invitation to come to the church-sponsored talent show [both things highly recommended to those who want to fit in with the town] and finally starts debating the existence of God with the preist! All of this, if you haven’t guessed, is delivered through a an attitude smug American liberal intellectual superiority.

Okay! Now here come the spoilers and surprises, so if you think you might want to watch this film—which I highly recommend you do—you should definitely stop right now. In fact, the most perfect conditions for watching this film is to know NOTHING about it. Join us after the spoilers end.

So David is getting ready for bed and casually telling his wife “You know, you’re not so dumb!” [hey—thanks so much!] when he opens the closet and—the cat’s been HUNG! It’s truly shocking. Obviously Amy doesn’t take this very well, and insists that David say something. He says he will—but doesn’t. He’s a massive wuss, an effete intellectual, and is just plain scared. Besides, the local guys just act like nothing as happened, and invite David to go out hunting. He accepts—to the fury of Amy.

The guys set David up with a bag, telling him to catch the birds as they flush them toward him, and leave him there. The whole scene has this queasy sense, as we, and David, know they’re planning something, but don’t know what. David, with no real evidence to accuse any of them, has to just let it unfold, knowing he’s being set up again. Meanwhile, at home, Charlie Venner comes by to visit Amy. You’ll notice that she’s reading a magazine with an picture of an upraised fist and the word “Revolution!” visible. He makes advances that grow ever more insistent, and when she slaps him, he pulls back and punches her. He rapes her, and halfway through, she starts to enjoy it. In fact, at a certain point it kind of seems like she has never experienced pleasure like that before—and certainly not with little wimpy David. Then Charlie looks up to find that another of his little gang is holding a shotgun on him. This other guy gets behind Amy and rapes her—not clear where—while Charlie, under duress, holds her down. It is clear that Amy does NOT enjoy the second rape, and personally, I think any hopes she might have briefly entertained that she and Charlie are going to run off together have probably been put once more on the back burner. The WAYYYY back burner.

Okay, let’s take a break and talk about the rape. This film obviously did not make a lot of friends with feminists—who aren’t real thrilled about Peckinpah in general—especially since it’s pretty clear that Amy comes to enjoy the initial rape. This was all infinitely compounded by the fact that, when originally released, the second rape, that Amy clearly did NOT enjoy, was cut out, to lessen the overall shock of the scene. The irony is that cutting that part out actually makes it all WORSE by leaving one feeling that Amy LOVED it. As it is presented now, I don’t have a problem with it. Amy’s coming to enjoy the rape with Charlie is well set up by the film; she had a previous relationship with him, and is currently quite unhappy with David, who in addition to being a belittling asshole is also a smarmy little wuss. Her showing Charlie her breasts earlier indicate that she is open to sexual contact and possibly resuming their relationship. So it doesn’t offend me personally that she starts to enjoy Charlie’s rape. She clearly doesn’t enjoy the second rape, but why does Charlie hold her down? It seems extremely complicated—the other guy [not sure which one it was] holds the shotgun to his head. Charlie seems to be anguished, hoping he could have gotten back together with Amy, and knowing holding her down will ruin that forever, but knowing that his life could be made hell if he “betrays” his male friends. Furthermore, his friend seems to know this, too, and seems to be sadistically enjoying the knowledge that he is screwing up Charlie’s prospects. So for me, all those shades of moral complication mitigate against making all-encompassing statements of right or wrong about this scene, and I think it is well set-up and responsibly followed-through on.

David was, of course, just left out there to wait like a fool, and finally comes home. Listen to the incongruously cheerful music as he walks home. When he gets home Amy is lying in bed smoking a cigarette. David says he’s going to fire the guys the next day. They fight some more—he says “When are you ever going to learn to grow up?” and she says “You’re a coward. And I’m a coward.” The next morning David fires them all, but still without telling them why or making any kind of accusation. That night Amy makes them go to the big church social. The rapists are there, and look her right in the face. Notice how Peckinpah keeps the scene incredibly tense and unpleasant by concentrating on the shrill whistles of kids’ party whistles. Amy is having flashbacks of the rape, handled though quick flashes, and looks incredibly uncomfortable. Finally David suggests they leave, and they do.

Before they left, teen tart Janice Hedden—daughter of the town drunk, Tom—went up to David and said hello, but he gave her so little notice she left without saying whatever it was she wanted to say. She then went straight to town fool Henry, who you’ll recall has a history of molestation, and asks him if he wants to take a walk with her. It’s not long before she is discovered missing and Tom corners Henry’s older brother and starts beating him. You might wonder to yourself if his time might be better spent looking for his daughter. We then see Janice asking Henry if he wants to kiss her, and placing his hands on her breasts. Her dad and brothers are now in the pub, putting the drinks away, having sent their very youngest to look for her. They are drinking to get drunk, just filling up glasses and downing them, causing one to again wonder why they aren’t out looking for her themselves. Meanwhile, Henry hears the kid calling for Janice, and clutches her around the neck to protect her. We cut back to the guys drinking, and when we return, we see Janice’s feet hanging slightly above the floor—Henry inadvertently killed her. He realizes what happened, and high-tails it out of there. He ends up getting hit by David and Amy just as they reach home—and they take him in.

The mob soon shows up, come in and demand Niles, but David refuses to give him, knowing the guys will beat him to death if he hands him over. “This is my house,” David finally says, and kicks the guys out. They want back in, and start breaking windows. Amy quickly becomes hysterical and insists that David hand over Niles. He looks at her, appalled, and says if they do, he’ll be killed, to which she responds “I don’t care.” Well, I don’t think David has a lot of respect for her just then, as he looks at her as though seeing what a rotten person she is inside. He says “This is where I live. This is me,” and makes clear that he’s going to stay and fight. The last twenty minutes of the movie is pure siege on the house, with David, sometimes with Amy’s help, sometimes in opposition to her, doing his best to keep the guys out. Despite my feelings about the rape as described earlier, this movie is still no feminist tract, as Amy comes off as immoral and virtually completely helpless, chasing after David screaming “Phone someone!” instead of just picking up the phone herself. She also attempts to walk out on him, at which point he pulls her back in and says “Do as you’re told. And if you don’t, I’ll snap your neck.” And Amy has been, and will continue to act, so helpless and insipid, we the audience are encouraged to “RAAWWWRRRR!” with David as he says this. Anyway, I’m not going to tell you how it ends.

It’s awesome! LOVED it. I admire how Peckinpah is able to create a great deal of tension from the start, even when nothing sinister is ostensibly happening, then successfully continue to ratchet up the tension. The first 40 minutes are excellent for laying out all the various parts of this mixture, any one of which could explode at any time. In the middle of this are David and Amy, standing out like sore thumbs and arrogantly offending everyone they come across. But these are true-to-life characters—the arrogant but wimpy East Coast liberal intellectual and the gorgeous woman who believes feminism means she should be free to act however she wants and never have to apologize for anything—as opposed to the yahoos of Hostel, which are creations simply meant to represent ugly Americans. I also admire the ramp-up of tension in their marriage over the course of the film, as at first the couple seems loving, but there’s this unaccountable tension, then they gradually grow more outwardly nasty and openly contemptuous.

The other thing I really like about this movie is the moral ambiguity of it all. We can see what an arrogant, smarmy prick David is, how he’s ham-handedly offending everyone in town, and what a pathetic wuss he is when it comes to standing up for himself, and what a mean, belittling bastard he is to Amy—yet one can get behind him and be on his side when he finally starts asserting himself. One can both be frustrated with Amy and her helpless whining, while at the same time sympathizing with where she’s coming from. Even the majority of the locals are hateful and cruel, yet one can understand their point of view most of the time. Then there are the ambiguous elements of the story—that Amy never ends up telling David what happened to her, and that David’s big final stand for justice is to defend someone who we know is actually guilty. These discordant elements actually work to create even MORE tension in the viewer, as you may be getting off on David’s released violence against the locals, while also hating David, or wanting to hit Amy while also feeling terribly sorry for what she’s been through. So this movie sets out to provoke intense reactions, and gets them honestly, through sheer technique and careful writing.

When you’re in the mood to watch something that is very interesting and genuinely provocative but that has enough filmmaking quality so that you don’t feel bad about watching it, here’s the movie for you! Go Peckinpah, you’re the man.

Should you watch it: 

Yes! It’s fascinating, moving, involving and truly provocative.