Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 #60 Straw Dogs (1971)
A lot of my life these days is about minimizing my exposure to things that will upset me. That’s only natural. As human beings, we are inherently inclined to want to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative, to fill our days with the things that we love and bring us joy, and avoid things that will bring us pain.
But I worry that as I get older I am taking this need to avoid the upsetting too far. When my grandchildren ask me what I did to fight the rise of fascism in our nation I want to be able to tell them something other than “I escaped deep into my obsessions and hoped the bad people in power would eventually be defeated.”
I want to deal with, and confront life’s abundant ugliness and disappointment, not hide from it out of a panicky conviction that, deep down, I’m not equipped to handle life’s brutality and would be destroyed by the full, overwhelming force of the darkness of this strange, sad, beautiful, unfathomably complicated world.
So when an exceedingly generous patron hired me to write about all of Sam Peckinpah’s movies for Control Nathan Rabin 4.0, the career and site-sustaining column where I give YOU, the kind, generous, Christ-like Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place patron an opportunity to chose a movie I must watch and then write about, in exchange for a one hundred dollar pledge to the site’s Patreon account (it goes down to seventy-five dollars for each subsequent choice) I was overjoyed. But I immediately started dreading re-visiting perhaps the ugliest moment in Peckinpah’s often exceedingly ugly and brutal filmography: the notorious rape of Susan George’s young wife character in 1971’s Straw Dogs.
This wasn’t just one of the most brutal, controversial and abhorrent sequences in Bloody Sam’s oeuvre: it’s one of the most notorious and shocking sequences in a 1970s New Hollywood not exactly lacking in sexual violence and brutality.
Even by the standards of the late 1960s and 1970s, when horrifically gratuitous sexual assaults were the rule rather than the exception, and Peckinpah’s violently divisive, divisively violent body of work, the rape in Straw Dogs of Amy (Susan George), the young, beautiful wife of mathematician David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) was extreme and alarming.
It was the subject of furious debate at the time of Straw Dogs’ release and continues to generate controversy and scathing criticism today of the artistic, moral and political variety.
And for good reason! I was so reluctant to wade into the murky, blood-soaked, problematic waters of Straw Dogs that I switched around the lineup and wrote about the lovely, quietly moving Junior Bonner, a melancholy character study refreshing devoid of brutal sexual assaults, before Straw Dogs even when that meant no longer covering Peckinpah’s films in strict chronological order.
Re-watching the sexual assault for this project I was right to be wary of Straw Dogs. The rape is every bit as endless, brutal and horrifying as I remembered, as well as deeply problematic in its depiction of a sexual assault that appears to become consensual, horrifying critics, academics and feminist film scholars for whom Peckinpah’s treatment of sexual assault epitomized Hollywood’s tone-deaf, deeply offensive and insensitive treatment of rape.
Part of what makes the rape, and everything else in Straw Dogs so powerful and disturbing, is the craft and artistry Peckinpah brings to the brutality. Peckinpah captures, on a visceral emotional level, the overwhelming, debilitating flood of emotions that come with being the victim of sexual assault, the shame and pain and horror but also other more, more ambiguous feelings that are hard to process and understand and come to terms with, in the moment and afterwards.
Peckinpah and Straw Dogs was prescient and incisive in its portrayal of the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in a powerful scene where Amy and her oblivious husband go to a church function after the assault and every noise brings her back to the act of almost inconceivable viciousness she’d just endured.
Straw Dogs’ seedy premise finds American pacifist egghead intellectual David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) moving with his sexy, much younger wife Amy (Susan George) to Wakely, a small, working-class English village in the Cornish countryside where the American eccentric numbers-cruncher and his gorgeous wife become an object of intense fascination, envy, anger and curiosity among the townspeople.
Dustin Hoffman is not a tall man but in Straw Dogs he’s filmed in a way that makes him look the size of a leprechaun or a child’s doll. It’s not just David’s height that makes stand out in the worst possible way among the manly men of Wakely. David’s wardrobe also makes him an outcast: he’s dressed like a prep school kid on picture day.
David gives out a real Max Fischer vibe that could not clash more with the hardscrabble toughness of the inhabitants of the village, who have the hard, lined, tragic faces of people who have lived, and lived hard, who have suffered because that’s all life is: endless suffering with the sweet release of the grave as the only escape.
With the exception of a bar patron taking a final bottle home by force, the first forty-five minutes of Straw Dogs are shockingly devoid of violence. It would be more accurate and honest to say that the first act of the film is devoid of overt, concrete violence because violence in Straw Dogs is no simple matter of bloodshed or murder. It’s bigger than that. It’s so vast it’s all-consuming. Violence is everywhere. It permeates every tense encounter, informs every agonizing conversation.
So while Straw Dogs eschews explicit violence in early going, from the very first frame the air is heavy with not just the threat, but the promise of violence, of bloodshed, of murder. It’s only a matter of time before the tension between prickly egghead David and the working-class British brutes, evil Andy Capps as it were, working on his enormous country house explodes into violence.
That threat of violence is inherently sexual in nature. Peckinpah shoots Amy and Janice Hedden (Sally Thomsett), a teenage girl whose accidental killing provides the catalyst for the siege of the country home though the leering, voyeuristic prism of the male gaze.
One of the first shots of Amy is a close-up of her perky breasts unrestrained by a brassiere. The film’s only two female characters are sexualized relentlessly. Peckinpah and the film don’t seem to view them much differently than locals who leer at them with uncontrollable lust and sinister intentions.
In a scene that undoubtedly played creepy in 1971 but has grown much creepier during the ensuing decades, in part because Roman Polanski was at one point approached to direct the film, David chucklingly tells his wife that she’s like a fourteen year old in her precocious, kittenish sexuality and that’s a turn on, but not as much as her being 12 or 8 would be. He’s joking, after a fashion, but his comments about his wife’s girlish sexuality are one of many elements that make it difficult, if not impossible, to empathize with Hoffman’s protagonist.
A controlling misogynist and all-around creep, David is a figure of impotent civilization, a pacifist liberal it is implied moved out of the United States as a way to avoid taking a stand on the Vietnam War and the civil unrest of the day so he can focus exclusively on his work as a mathematician and author.
The men working on David and Amy’s home do little to nothing to hide their contempt for the man of the house and their lust for the lady. Some of the workers invite David to go hunting with them as a prelude for Charlie Venner, Susan’s rough-hewn ex-boyfriend (Del Henney) to go the house and try to seduce his ex-girlfriend. When she resists, he rapes her, a violation that becomes even more nightmarish when she’s raped by another of the workers at gunpoint.
Yet despite the horrifying sexual violence at the film’s core, the catalyst for the lengthy, bloody siege at the center of the third act is more or less completely unrelated. Henry Niles, whom an uncredited but very powerful David Warner plays as a cross between Frankenstein’s Monster and Lennie from Of Mice and Men accidentally kills a flirtatious teenaged girl and is subsequently hit by David’s car.
David takes the wanted man back to his home to recover from the accident but when a lynch mob shows up at his home angrily demanding Henry David takes a stand against his wife’s wishes and refuses to let them take a potentially innocent man.
On a physical level, the puny mathematician is no match for the men intent on killing Henry and anyone who gets in their way. So David uses science and his big old brain to create a series of deadly traps that suggest a hard-R version of Home Alone. Indeed, the production designer for the terrible, amoral but wildly popular kid’s film described it as a "kids version of Straw Dogs.”
That he’s not wrong says something horrible about Home Alone. We know Straw Dog is problematic and nihilistic as fuck. Home Alone, however, still inexplicably has a reputation for being a nice movie for children, and not, you know, a kids version of Straw Dogs minus the craft and grim exploration of the nature of masculinity, violence and mankind’s underlying brutality.
Straw Dogs is a horror movie about how quickly and easily the laws and moral codes that govern us can dissipate in a violent crisis, leaving only an animalistic struggle to survive at all costs, even if that means killing over and over again in a desperate struggle not to be killed yourself.
Re-watching Straw Dogs I realized that my belief that revenge melodramas should have some level of visceral emotional power no matter how odious or poorly made they might be is rooted overwhelmingly in my combined respect for, and revulsion towards, Straw Dogs.
There are actually plenty of revenge movies so badly made and empty that I felt nothing watching them, like Peppermint, the recent Death Wish remake and Death Wish 5, all of which I’ve seen in the past year or so. So it isn’t the revenge movie that’s inherently powerful and unsettling even when done badly. No, it’s Straw Dogs specifically that’s incredibly powerful and unnerving even if you finds its politics and ethics abhorrent and amoral, as I do.
In Straw Dogs more than any of Peckinpah’s other films, violence is as natural and endemic to human nature as breathing and eating. It’s a reflex, an impulse, who we are on a cellular, core level. It’s the fancy lie of civilization that is the true aberration.
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