Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Director Report Card: Sam Peckinpah (1971)

6. Straw Dogs

Following the difficult production and underwhelming reception of “The Ballad of Cable Hogue,” Sam Peckinpah was once again on the outs with American studios. But this was the seventies and the auteur theory still carried some weight. So Peckinpah sought better fortune in Europe, making his next movie in Britain. That film would be “Straw Dogs,” his first departure from the Western genre. Loosely adapted from Gordon M. Williams' novel “The Siege of Treacher's Farm” – Peckinpah reportedly disliked the book and only kept the titular siege – the film would match the unlikely feat of becoming Peckinpah's most controversial movie. People debated the movie's worth in its day and, even now, many are divided. Despite this, “Straw Dogs” has gained a reputation as one of the director's most iconic films.

David Sumner and his wife, Amy, have recently moved to her old hometown. That would be Wakely, a small village nestled in an obscure corner of the Cornish countryside. David hopes the peace and quiet of the location will help him with his studies, as a mathematician. Peace, however, is hard to find. Amy receives unwanted attention from Charlie, an old ex-boyfriend who is part of the construction crew working on the house. David, meanwhile, finds the locals hostile. This conflict continues to simmer until one fateful night, when David allows the town imbecile into his house. The man-child is wanted by an angry mob. Sumner, however, becomes determined to defend his home, no matter what the price.

The term did not exist in 1971 but “Straw Dogs” is, nevertheless, a movie about toxic masculinity. The debate centers around whether or not the movie condemns it or halfheartedly endorses it. The latter party makes the following observations. David Sumner begins the film as a stereotypical stuffy academic. He wears glasses. He's constantly tinkering away at a formula on a chalkboard, which he treats as the most deadly serious business. This is in contrast to the hard-working manly men that populate the town. When those hard-skinned guys threaten Sumner's house, he has to learn how to be a tough bastard to survive. You don't have to look hard to find takes on the movie that claims it unironically endorses David's behavior throughout the film. That it's arguing for – and maybe even supporting – an inherent tendency towards violence inside man, like the novel that inspired it.

I see the film as a little more complex than that. David is pretty clearly not a sympathetic or sensible character. He's rude to his wife. When one of the locals kills her cat, he doesn't confront the workers. Instead, he tries to befriend them. Later, he's completely oblivious to how traumatized his wife is, never discovering her assault. In in the last act, he does not attempt to deescalate the violence. He chooses the safety of an unstable and possibly child molesting manslaughter as his hill to die on. As the situation becomes more grave, the film draws a direct parallel between David's treatment of his wife and how her rapists treated her. He slaps her and verbally abuses her. I don't believe we're supposed to like David. Moreover, his decline into violence is clearly not celebratory.

Violence is rarely celebratory in Peckinpah's films. It's just as intense and ugly here as in “The Wild Bunch,” focusing the agony of those injured, how their bodies are broken and blasted. A shotgun blows a huge hole in a man's chest, for stupid and senseless reasons. Later, a foot is utterly mangled by the same weapon. Most notoriously, a man suffers and twitches after a bear-trap is slammed onto his neck. Peckinpah does not revel in violence but shows how awful it is. The film also criticizes macho bluster and the violence it leads to. Among the film's antagonists is Tom Hedden, a belligerent drunk and bully known throughout town for starting fights. Unsurprisingly, Tom's impulsiveness is largely responsible for the violence in the last act.

Yet “Straw Dogs” is still somewhat murky on the subject. The film clearly criticizes men who treat women as property. Amy's assaulters are depicted as gross, sleazeballs who practically slobber while oogling her. Charlie rapes her because he still believes he has some right to her. Tom's obsession with his daughter's purity, and its possible violation, is what makes Henry Niles a target of mob violence. The mob never discovers what actually happened to the girl. At the same time, the film seems to blame Amy and the teenage girl to a degree, bringing their fates down on themselves by teasing the men around them. “Straw Dogs” is definitely against the violent impulses of thoughtless men. At the same time, it doesn't treat women very well either.

It's not impossible to insist “Straw Dogs” is a western of sorts. Transport the setting back to the American frontier in the 1880s and the story would be largely unchanged. Yet the film also belongs to a then very trendy genre. Peckinpah was offered “Deliverance” and “Straw Dogs” is a similar story. It's a film about a very urban outsider traveling to the countryside and encountering unwelcoming, and eventually violent, locals.  This makes it part of the Savage South genre, even if the setting is the British countryside and not the American South. Making David American in the U.K. further emphasizes his status as an outsider. That makes the culture class aspect intrinsic to the Savage South movie even more important. It's not just the difference between cities and the country separating the characters in the film, it's an ocean.

“Straw Dogs” resting inside the Savage South genre also makes it a horror movie of sorts. A dead cat hanging inside a closet wouldn't be out of place in a horror flick made around the same time. The last act certainly resembles the home invasion movies that would briefly become popular in the genre about ten years ago. Peckinpah seems aware of the movie bordering the horror genre. In the last act, he throws in lots of English fog. Combined with the sense of isolation, it creates an almost gothic feeling of dread. Crazed faces emerging from the night, with violent intentions and thrusting rats into a house, is certainly abreast of the horror genre. “Straw Dogs” is certainly the closest Peckinpah would ever come to the genre.

As I said, “Straw Dogs” was controversial in 1971. Released the same year as “A Clockwork Orange” and “Dirty Harry,” it led to debates about the growing violence in films. However, no element of the film remains more controversial, then and now, than that rape scene. It's often been said to be an “ambiguous” rape. From a modern perspective, it could not be less ambiguous. Amy says no. She tells Charlie to stop. He keeps going. Yet Amy clearly still desires Charlie, accepting some of his kisses and embracing him eventually, complicating her feelings about what's happening. There's no complications about what follows. Charlie holds her down so one of his friends can rape her, horribly and graphically. It's a very difficult scene, perhaps playing into awful myths about women being raped “until they like it,” but Peckinpah doesn't seem to have any confusion about what he's directing. The scene is exactly as uncomfortable as it should be.

During the rape scene, Peckinpah cuts between Amy's assault and David standing out in a field, seemingly another illustration of how clueless her husband is. The direction employs cross-cutting like this throughout “Straw Dogs.” As Amy has traumatic flashbacks, images from the rape appear on-screen alongside the church performance she's watching. The director's visual sense is equal parts distant, emphasizing the couple's isolation, but also intimate, focusing on the cramped interior of their home. It grows more frenzied as the film heads towards its blisteringly tense last act. As the intruders force their way in, Peckinpah focuses in on the shattering glass and mad faces. The tension keeps building until that bear trap snaps shut, the last attacker dead.

“Straw Dogs” would see Sam Peckinpah working with a different type of star than usual. Nobody embodies the seventies intellectual, respected screen thespian like Dustin Hoffman. This, of course, makes him ideal for David Sumner, a nerdy man so absorbed in his own thoughts that he doesn't notice how bad things are around him. Hoffman has no problem playing this awkwardness. Even better, once David begins to unwind, he dives fully in on the character's unsympathetic side. Hoffman was not subverting his image. He was simply placing it in a new situation, in a very effective way.

Many modern reviews have suggested that “Straw Dogs” would be a better movie if it was about Susan George's Amy. This is understandable, as Amy is maybe the film's only sympathetic character. She's a woman who wants simple things: A husband that actually cares about her, a safe home, a town where she can walk down the street without wearing a bra and not be starred at by everyone. George gives an understated and nuanced performance, especially once the character is traumatized by her assault. By the way, the supporting cast includes a creepy David Warner as Henry and a blustering Peter Vaughn as Tom Hedden.

Another, less vital source of conversation concerning “Straw Dogs” is what exactly its title means. Peckinpah took the title from an obscure quote from Lao Tzu, about how people are treated by a savage world. It's easier to assume that the title refers to how the townspeople perceive Hoffman's David, as something light and weak they can push around. As for the movie itself, it works extremely well as a thriller. The performances are strong and Peckinpah's direction is taunt. It's also a difficult and unpleasant watch, especially in our current political climate. Having said that, I'd still say “Straw Dogs” is worth seeing, if only so you can get your own take on it. [Grade: B+]

No comments: