Tuesday, 6 September 2011
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Susan George,
By Alan Bacchus
This is Sam Peckinpah's other unquestionable triumph, second to The Wild Bunch, a classic morality tale that furthers his career examination of violence and the specifically American perception of it. While The Wild Bunch was told using the tropes of the Western genre and the familiar themes of male camaraderie, heroism, anti-heroism and machismo, Straw Dogs is about a cowardly pacifist forced to find his latent primal urges to protect his home and family.
The narrative, as written by Peckinpah and co-writer David Zelag Goodman from Gordon Williams' novel The Siege at Trencher's Farm, is uncomplicated – David (Dustin Hoffman), an American mathematician, and Amy (Susan George), a Brit, have arrived in Amy's hometown, a quaint Southwest English hamlet, for some peace and quiet. However, they find themselves the brunt of xenophobic bullying from the locals, which by the end turns bloody and deadly.
The simplicity of the situation requires little narrative twists and turns. When told from the point of view of David, a meek and cowardly outsider, we immediately identify with his reluctance to act when pushed. What a remarkable thematic turn for Peckinpah to craft such a complex character restrained from the bravado and violence that is so prevalent in the genre in which he made his name.
Despite the film's reputation, there's actually little violence in the film. But it's the sustained tone of quiet dread and the intensely personal nature of the threats on David and Amy that get under our skin in ways The Wild Bunch never did. Peckinpah portrays his lead characters with remarkably layered complexity. The acts of violence are especially gut-wrenching because they're committed under a devious, false hospitality.
The British hooligans, which are ironically employed to repair David's roof, torment David in the most cruel and childish ways. Initially, it’s like innocent hazing, but it slowly escalates to dangerous assault and murderous intentions. At every turn Peckinpah resists the temptation to satisfy our needs and have David fight back. Perhaps the most nail-biting scene is David’s and Amy's confrontation with the men after the death of their cat. Amy, who had been begging David to stand up for them, gives him an ultimatum to confront the men about the feline. But as the group stand together with the elephant in the room going unspoken, the tension is earth shattering and his failure to act is devastating.
In fact, Peckinpah has never written a better screenplay. Every line of dialogue and unspoken reaction is like a loaded gun. The quiet tone contributes to the feeling of a brewing storm gathering energy and a force waiting to be released. The final act indeed releases all the tension in a superb set piece worthy of Peckinpah's career of great violent set pieces. It comes in the form of 'the siege,' after which the original novel was named. We finally get to see David take action. But it's never heroic. While it's wholly satisfactory to see his antagonists get their comeuppance, David's anger is also ugly and primal.
Amy is never completely victimized either. Her flaunted sexuality around the men, initially used to get back at David for his selfishness, is one of the causes of her rape later in the film, one of a series of tragic ironies that befalls the characters.
The rape scene is completely terrifying not because of the vicious assault suffered by Susan George's character, but because of the complexity with which the scene plays out. Amy clearly resists Charlie's urges but at one point gives in, appearing to moan with pleasure. This depiction of Amy's acceptance was, at one time, censored and cut out, only to be reinstated 20 years later. This is the genius of Peckinpah's subtle direction, which is fully consistent with the complexities of everyone's relationships in the picture. Of course, after the rape, which Amy 'accepts' only to lessen the pain involved, we're completely shattered and shocked when the scene continues with Charlie's sadistic accomplice Norman.
Of course, a remake of this film is coming out soon, which is the reason this film receives the Blu-ray release now. Nothing will take away from the power and influence of this most unique treatise on violence, which is arguably uglier and more disturbing than The Wild Bunch and any other films before or after.
Straw Dogs is available on Blu-ray from MGM Home Entertainment.