Yeah, two Cinematic Revival features in three days, go figure. I remember a while back when I couldn’t even get one published every three weeks; I still have Almost Famous and Wolf Man notes sitting here waiting to be utilized. However, today is the day for Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 thriller Straw Dogs, a film you absolutely must watch and once you do you will realize that the proposed Rod Lurie remake is utterly absurd. However, I wouldn’t mind a re-release, seeing this in theaters the same year as A Clockwork Orange must have been one hell of a trip.
One of the main reasons Straw Dogs keeps on popping up is the controversy that surrounds it related to what was perceived to be a growing amount of violence in American cinema. As if a double rape scene, dudes getting blown away by shotguns, boiling whiskey to the face and one fella getting his head caught in a bear trap is violent. Sheesh, the censors can be such prudes.
Seriously though, this film should be billed as an all out horror. The tension in this film can be felt throughout as it builds from the opening moments and culminates in a massive climax that will have you on edge.
The film is based on the Gordon Williams novel “The Siege of Treacher’s Farm” and was adapted by Peckinpah and David Zelag Goodman. The story centers on David Sumner played by Dustin Hoffman using that weasley sort of passive style of acting he used in… well… I guess I have never seen Hoffman in a role like this before. The role of Sumner embodies almost every character trait known to man.
David and his wife, Amy (Susan George), move to Amy’s hometown of Cornwall, England to get away from America and all its violence. David is an astrophysicist and he slowly begins to commit all his time to his work, ignoring Amy as she is left to meander around the house without a thing to do. The temperature of the film heats up when the four men hired to perform repairs around Amy’s father’s farmhouse, one of them being an ex-flame of Amy’s named Charlie Venner (Del Henney), begin to notice David’s weaknesses and Amy’s flirtatious advances. Granted her flirting is nothing more than a cock tease, but once you see these fellas you will soon realize they are hardly capable of telling the difference between a tease and the real thing, and as the picture above insinuates, Amy wasn’t playing timid.
It doesn’t take long for the taunting to begin as the contraction workers soon begin to intimidate the couple, Amy with leering eyes and David with threatening glances. The twist comes midway through the film when David and Amy find their cat hanging dead in their closet. Knowing it was done at the hands of the workers Amy insists David confront them, but he is more interested in creating peace than any kind of aggressive confrontation. The move results in an invitation to go hunting with the boys, and that is when the story takes a dramatic turn. David soon becomes what he despises most in a violent battle summing up the film leaving viewers to make up for themselves just what the point of it all was.
If you want to watch this film and not learn anything more about it before seeing it then stop reading now and go rent it, because the first half of this piece lays out the groundwork of the first and second act, but now we are getting into spoiler territory. The film is 36-years-old and last week I told you to watch it because this piece was coming. Therefore I feel no sympathy if you continue on. To top it off I think you will still enjoy the film even knowing what I am about to say, perhaps more, perhaps less. I just wanted to give you fair warning.
You have probably been reading up to this point and if you were unaware of what all the controversy surrounding this film was you are probably asking what the big deal is. You notice the story is already about a pacifist man that abhors violence but must find the violence in himself to survive come the end of the film. It’s quite the conundrum, and the level of violence bothered people as films such as A Clockwork Orange, Dirty Harry and The French Connection were also released that year. However the violence was far from the most controversial part of the story.
I ended my description of the plot above telling you about how David and the boys went out hunting in an effort to become friends. It was a way for David to become one of the guys and he felt accepted. However, things changed once they got out in the field. David was told to stand in one place and the guys would spread out and scare the birds into David’s general direction for him to shoot. Little did David know that Charlie was going to take advantage of the situation as Amy was left home alone.
Amy answers the door to find Charlie, whom she thought was out hunting with her husband. She invites him in, telling him they have something to talk about. She obviously believed this was her moment to confront Charlie about the dead cat, something her husband was unwilling to do; she unfortunately never gets the chance.
She soon finds herself on the couch with Charlie pressing down on her. She has already slapped him numerous times, but on her last attempt, she raises her hand to which Charlie says, “Amy, I don’t want to reave you, but I will.” Charlie then proceeds to rape her, and this is where the controversy comes in; Amy gives up and no longer begins fighting him off. As a matter of fact, one could argue she actually appears to be enjoying herself. I say one could argue this because that is the argument.
People say there is a two-second moment in which Amy smiles during the rape (what is she doing above?), but if you are looking closely it is more than two seconds, and with her enjoyment come tears. The scene is an amazing one that not only asks the viewer to question what Amy is thinking at each single moment, but just how you as a viewer are supposed to feel with regard to what you are watching.
The scene, by my count, has four stages to it:
With your brain a complete mess, trying to comprehend what happened, Peckinpah doesn’t let you breathe for a second as the second barrel is fired.
Peeking over the double barreled shotgun is Norman Scutt (Ken Hutchison). As if the scene wasn’t ugly enough Norman forces Charlie to hold down Amy while he also rapes her, this time there is no smiling and certainly no satisfaction.
Before we look at this any deeper consider the following scene in which Amy is seen in bed and looking like she has been through the ringer. David returns home after being abandoned on the hunting field and the following conversation takes place:
David: I’m firing Venner and Scutt tomorrow.
Amy: Good for you, tiger.
David: Because they stuck it to me on the moors today.
Amy: They also serve those who sit at home and wait.
In the scene Amy never tells David anything about what happened to her, and based on Amy’s last comment there you should already be figuring out if she actually enjoyed it or not, but let me just point out one more thing.
The next day David and Amy attend a church gathering and during a magic performance Amy begins having flashbacks as key words are said from both the magician and the crowd, the most telling of which is when the word “torn” is uttered as the magician claims the “torn” piece of paper was never “torn” at all. Seeing the grief on Amy’s face in conjunction with the images and especially the word “torn” is more than enough proof for me that she didn’t enjoy one minute of being raped as many would contend, and if you think the controversy has ended guess again.
A shit storm erupted online when ComingSoon posted an interview with director Rod Lurie about his potential remake of the film. Lurie’s comment that created the blogosphere skirmish went as follows:
That quote alone tells us Lurie missed out on the whole point of the scene. He later goes on to say that Peckinpah “was a little lazy” with Straw Dogs. I couldn’t disagree more.
Through a variety of circumstances, the final act of the film involves a village idiot on the run and hiding in the Sumner’s house, a missing little girl and a band of drunken rubes (four of them being the workers from earlier the other being the little girl’s father) assaulting the Sumner’s house asking for the blood of said idiot.
Throughout the film Amy challenges David into confrontation and he resists. She asks him, “When are you ever going to learn about growing up?” to which he says, “I’m trying to!” Well, the attack on his house was the final straw and as I have already said a couple of times, he resorts to the violence of which he hates. The film ends with David killing them all but the one left for Amy to blow away with a shotgun.
Interestingly enough, one of the few critics to not like this movie was the man himself, Roger Ebert. Ebert looked at this final scene and writes:
With Ebert’s review he seems to have a lot of logic problems with the film, the final act specifically, and he also never brings up David’s distaste for violence, and I am not sure why. That was the movie in my opinion. It was a character study of a man that has such a hatred for violence that he moved to another country to get away from it and still wasn’t able to avoid it. So much so that he ended up being the violent one and killed men in the process with his wife killing another.
Ebert calls it hypocrisy. I call it irony.
If you didn’t check out my piece on Metropolis from Monday you can check that out here.