What's the Big Deal?: Straw Dogs (1971)

With a new Blu-ray edition now available and Rod Lurie's remake in theaters this week, it's a good time to talk about Straw Dogs, the 1971 Sam Peckinpah drama that's famous today primarily for being controversial when it was released. Its dark themes are still unsettling 40 years later. What made Straw Dogs an important part of cinema history? Let's boil a pot of oil and investigate.

The praise: Straw Dogs was a success at the box office (among the top 15 releases of 1971), no doubt in part because of the controversy around it. Critics generally praised it, too, though there were notable exceptions. But the film came up short at awards season, getting a single Oscar nomination for its musical score and a citation for best director from the Kansas City Film Critics Circle. Over time, it came to be appreciated as an uncomfortable snapshot of its time and an important entry in the Sam Peckinpah canon. Walter Chaw sums it up with this mixed compliment: "In terms of addressing the animal darkness at the heart of every single human being with purposefulness and occasionally awful auteur pretension, Straw Dogs might be the most eloquent, most damnably unpleasant piece of celluloid ever stained."

The context: Sam Peckinpah (1925-1984) was a rough-and-tumble, rootin'-tootin', hard-drinking crazy man who also made movies. He was probably manic-depressive and definitely an alcoholic and occasional drug addict, and he fought with everyone. Rare was the Peckinpah film from which multiple crew members were not fired before the end of the production.

After getting his start in TV Westerns, Peckinpah shifted to movies and earned serious attention with his second film, Ride the High Country (1962). He blew all that goodwill with his next one, Major Dundee (1965), which went over schedule and over budget and was marked by frequent quarrels between Peckinpah and pretty much everyone involved.

Then came his remarkable comeback: The Wild Bunch (1969), an exceptionally violent (even by today's standards) Western that was a smash with audiences and critics. Naturally, his next move was to shoot himself in the foot again. The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) was another disastrous and expensive production, full of hot tempers and abrupt firings, and it ruined his relationship with Warner Bros. He'd been at the top of the list to direct soon-to-be-classics like Deliverance and Jeremiah Johnson, but no more.

With few options, Peckinpah went to England and made Straw Dogs, replacing the dusty Western towns that typically appeared in his movies with a charming Cornish village. In the New York Times, critic Vincent Canby noted that while the setting had changed, many of the themes remained the same -- and that they didn't fit in present-day Cornwall, England, the way they did in the Old West.

Roger Ebert, who had loved The Wild Bunch, wasn't happy with Straw Dogs, calling it "a major disappointment in which Peckinpah's theories about violence seem to have regressed to a sort of 19th-century mixture of Kipling and machismo." More pointedly: "The perfect criticism of Straw Dogs already has been made. It is The Wild Bunch."

Pauline Kael, writing in the New Yorker, made perhaps the most famous declaration about Straw Dogs: "the first American film that is a fascist work of art." Her view, shared by many, was that Peckinpah glorified violence -- indeed, that he seemed to be saying men are inherently violent, and that to pretend otherwise is hypocrisy. (Walter Chaw's summary is apt: "What happens in this picture doesn't happen because people are apes, it happens because one man denies that he's an ape.") Kael wrote that while most of us would use whatever means necessary to protect our homes and families, if it came to violence "we would be glad to have won but be sickened and disgusted at the choice forced upon us." Peckinpah, she says, feels delight, not disgust. "The movie intends to demonstrate not merely that there is a point at which a man will fight but that he is a better man for it -- a real man at last."

But not everyone felt that way. Time magazine's unsigned review gave pretty much the same interpretation of the film as Kael, but viewed it favorably. "Peckinpah asserts with gripping, merciless logic that any man, no matter how cold or cowardly, is capable of committing the most appalling violence -- and of enjoying it. 'You never took a stand,' Amy accuses David early in the film; when he finally does, he acts not from any sense of honor but from animal instinct."

The review went on to call it "a brilliant feat of movie making," and then quoted Peckinpah himself: "I regard all men as violent, including myself. I'm not cynical. I still believe, and I still want everything to work out, but it never does. When you see the degree of violence in men, you realize that we're still just a few steps up from apes in the evolutionary scale."

The movie: A young couple, American David (Dustin Hoffman) and English Amy (Susan George), move into a house in the quaint village where Amy grew up. Local men, some of them acquainted with Amy from her teenage years, are hired to do repairs. They do some menacing, and David and Amy menace each other, too, and then things really go awry, like for serious.

What it influenced: Movies from the last few decades that deal with the violent, animalistic nature of adult men owe at least a little something to Straw Dogs. Fight Club could be seen as an end-of-the-millennium update of Peckinpah's themes: modern men are repressed and neutered, afraid of confrontation, and need an outlet for their primal tendencies. Both films even share the same ambiguity about whether this need for violence is a good thing, a bad thing, or just a thing. The subject comes up again and again, in recent films (just off the top of my head) like Attack the Block and Warrior. Straw Dogs wasn't the first movie to tackle the question of masculine violence, of course, but it came at a time when Hollywood was getting more experimental and willing to face it head-on.

What to look for: While David occupies the place in the story normally reserved for the hero, nothing he does is heroic. Even the act of defending his home from intruders is done more out of anger at having been pushed around for too long than out of any high-minded sense of principle. When things really go haywire during that final sequence, David's priority shifts even further: now he mainly wants to assert his role as Amy's husband, to claim her as his.

To put it more bluntly, David is the film's true villain. "Straw Dogs is about an evil man who has so divorced himself from animal logic that he's become monstrous," writes Walter Chaw. David is an elitist and a coward, a college professor who has fled the turbulent American campuses -- remember, it's 1971, the height of the Vietnam War and its related protests -- for pastoral England rather than take a stand on anything. He cannot relate to the brutish men of the village; more importantly, he doesn't even try. He believes that being civilized and pacific is always best, but that's mostly just because he's afraid to fight. "For Peckinpah, he is the epitome of a neutered man," writes Nick Schager, "bereft of the sexuality, courage and physical stature that the film's rugged townsmen ... possess."

The film's rape scene is notorious. It had to be trimmed slightly to get an R rating, and the whole movie was banned in England for years. It is also the element that has been most frequently discussed and given the greatest variety of interpretations. Contemporary reviewers like Kael and Canby thought Peckinpah was a misogynist, while others believe the scene is meant to repel us. "It actually fits snugly into the film's statement on the foulness and futility of violence," says Schager.

Then there's Joshua Clover, who wrote an essay about the film for the Criterion DVD release. "To name the movie misogynistic is to mistake the degree to which it is a movie that despises everyone, its viewers no less than its characters," he writes. "It is, finally, the film’s ability to drag the audience into its theater of cruelty ... that marks something fearsome about art’s capacities."

Peckinpah's point, Clover says, was to make us uncomfortable by letting us take a peek at evil and then reminding us that this makes us complicit in it. "At every turn, our participation is thrown in our faces like so much boiling oil," he writes. "Peckinpah invites us to the theater of Susan George’s nubility; the price is the discovery we just walked an aisle in a rapist’s shoes."

It's a good 45 minutes before anything truly sinister happens in the film, but the tone is uneasy and ominous the whole time. We join David in his confusion in the village, the way violence is an accepted and normal part of daily interactions. The whole place just seems ... off. Meanwhile, at home, things between David and Amy are just as weird. Do they love each other or hate each other? Or is it, like everything else in the movie, a complicated mix of the two?

What's the big deal: I mentioned at the top that the film was controversial in 1971. And guess what? It still is. We've seen movies since then that were more violent and had more graphic depictions of rape, but Straw Dogs is still unsettling in the way it forces us to examine our attitudes about those things. There are uncomfortable truths here, and our increasingly violent world just makes them more relevant.

Further reading: All of these articles discuss plot details in depth. I would recommend watching the movie first (if you've never seen it), and then diving into this treasure trove of divergent commentaries on it.

Contemporary reviews: Vincent Canby, Roger Ebert, Time magazine. (Pauline Kael's review in the New Yorker is unfortunately not available online unless you are a current New Yorker subscriber. It was in the Jan. 29, 1972, issue.)

More recent commentaries: My favorite of this batch is Michael Sragow in Salon. But see also: Walter Chaw at Film Freak Central, Nick Schager in Slant, Damon Houx at DVD Journal, and Joshua Clover at Criterion.

Related columns: "What's the Big Deal?: The Wild Bunch (1969)."