in Shocktober

Straw Dogs (1971)

I asked John to put Straw Dogs on the list for this marathon because I didn’t understand what it was. I hadn’t seen anything by Sam Peckinpah before, but was aware of his reputation for uncompromising, gritty, revisionist films, which made me interested in checking his movies out. The synopsis of Straw Dogs makes it sound like good folk horror, the story of a civilized American taking on a village of drunken monsters. Unfortunately for me, this is a film that has little interest in the concept of fun… or good… or taste.

After professional troubles, American mathematician David (Dustin Hoffman) and his wife Amy (Susan George) move to her hometown of Cornwall, England (coincidentally the same setting as The Uninvited). It’s hard to say why they decided to move to Cornwall, instead of literally anywhere else, or why they’re even married, as they seem to have little in common and rarely even show affection. Anyway, Amy’s return immediately grabs the attention of the whole shitty town, particularly Charlie (Del Henney), her ex-boyfriend, and his goons. They approach the couple and David hires them to repair the farmhouse at their home, despite Amy seeming somewhat resistant to that idea.

Tensions rise for a number of reasons – David is uninterested and belittling to Amy, Charlie and his goons work slow and ogle Amy – culminating in David and Amy finding their cat strung up in their closet. The couple are certain it was Charlie and his goons, but rather than directly confront them, David tries to set a trap to make them admit to the crime. Amy undermines David’s trap, so instead he ends up agreeing to go hunting with the goons. They take David out to some remote area and abandon him, in the meantime Charlie goes to the house and rapes Amy. When he’s finished, one of his goons appears with a gun and makes Charlie hold Amy down so he can rape her too.

David returns that night, oblivious and embarrassed to have been abandoned. Amy doesn’t tell him about the rapes, and even though she’s clearly upset, David is too pigheaded and assumes she’s mad at him. The next day, David fires the goons for being mean to him and working too slow, and life settles down for a little while. That weekend, they attend a gathering at the church, where Amy starts to panic, since her assaulters are in attendance. At least this time David notices her distress, and they leave early. The same night, the village pariah, a man with a learning disability called Henry (Star Trek veteran David Warner), is seduced by the daughter of the town drunk, who he accidentally smothers to death.

Driving through the fog, David and Amy accidentally hit a panicking Henry with their car. They take him back to their house and call into town for help. By now the town drunk and the goons are out looking for blood, even though they only know that the girl is missing. They drive up to the house and surround it, telling David and Amy to turn Henry over, which David refuses to do. The constable arrives and is murdered by the drunk, and David realizes that the situation has escalated to kill or be killed, and he goes full Home Alone.

The final 20 minutes or so of Straw Dogs is pure violence, which, ironically, by modern standards is the most watchable part of the movie. I was upset that the goons were killed more for trying to kill Henry than they were for raping Amy, an act which is never talked about and so, plot-wise, served as only the reason for the couple to end up with Henry in their house. What’s worse is that Henry lunges at Amy at one point, and David just like wags his finger at him and locks him in the attic. Yeah, all these guys suck.

David’s story is one of repressed masculinity – he’s an intellectual and an outsider, and therefore the subject of much mocking by the goons. Instead of proving them wrong, David grows to become one of them, a macho violence factory. Amy’s story is much more tragic, as she’s presented as a woman hoping for a better life. She wants to be herself and she wants to grow, which I’m guessing is why she married David, even though he’s a jerk. She moved away from her terrible town, she’s shown multiple times to be curious and seeking intellectual stimulation, and for all that she ends up abused by every man in the movie. It is sucky, misogynistic storytelling; the poor woman can’t even turn to David for support – early in the movie when she says the goons are ogling her, he tells her it’s because of the way she dresses. Yep.

I was interested in Peckinpah because I thought he was a filmmaker who glorified nihilism and violence to say something about the world. That may absolutely the case, but Straw Dogs is then a terrible example of his work. This is a movie that objectifies every woman in the story and turns every man into a killer. A movie needs to have more to it than that if it wants to rise beyond the level of contemptible.