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111 of 124 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars That most ugly abstraction, November 21, 2001
This review is from: Straw Dogs (DVD)
Aside from the notoriety, and aside from the viciousness (the film leaves you most of all with a taste of viciousness in your mouth, a sour, bitter, metallic taste, akin to that feeling you get reading "The Tin Drum", the piece of metal stuck in the back of your throat), what you get from "Straw Dogs" is a manifestation of personal demons (specifically, Sam Peckinpah's personal demons, but also, both more generally and more acutely, masculine demons) and an exploration of a certain type of male sexuality.
To do the film justice, you need to plug your brain in. Which, on the surface, may not appear to be the case, because the story - what it is - is relatively simple. It's an English western.
David, a mathematician (Dustin Hoffman), is on sabbatical from the university where he teaches. He has left the states and returned with his wife Amy, (Susan George) to the tiny English village in which she grew up. From the word go, David has to contend with the fact that Amy has a history in the town. He also has to contend with the fact that she is younger than him, and bored. Her boredom serves as a distraction from the reason behind his sabbatical. Amy on the other hand has to live with a quiet, "odd" American who does not give her the attention she requires.
Within the town, there are various echoes at work: there is a character called Niles, played by David Warner, who has a known history of problems relating with women (to the extent that he has served time for undisclosed offences); there are the locals, who divide their time between procrastinating over work on David and Amy's roof, and leering at Amy (who periodically informs David about the effect she has on them, how they "lick her all over with their eyes"); and there is David himself, spending a little more time than he really should looking at teenager Sally Thomsett.
All of which feeds into the terrible rape scene (a scene of which Peckinpah is quoted as saying - in the excellent biography "If it moves . . . kill 'em" - "I wanted to film the best rape scene ever" - a line ripe with complexity and moral disorder): Amy is raped by Charlie, leader of the leering locals, who may or may not be her childhood sweetheart (two earlier scenes indicate that (a) something went on years earlier and (b) Charlie took it further then than Amy was happy with).
At some point during the awful protracted rape, for whatever reason (and there is something manifest at work in her face, palpably desire but desire for what - who knows?) she stops fighting and starts (ugly this, but true - this is what happens in the film:) - starts to participate. The participation is taken (by some) to be a playing out of a certain retrogressive masculine attitude (that all women - deep down etc etc etc). However you interpret it - and it does require interpretation, importantly - the participation is at the dark heart of "Straw Dogs"' notoriety. The fact that this is followed by the appearance of a second man, and a second rape, only compounds the difficulty - the cloudiness - that will inevitably surround any attempt to precisely articulate what is going on here.
At which point, the echoes become still more manifest: you have Niles, despised because of his weakness for young girls (and as such - in the context of the character's lives - a "bad" man), you have the men who rape Amy (a fact that remains undisclosed within the body of the film), men who later attempt to avenge themselves on Niles (in a vivid reworking of "Of Mice and Men"), and you have David - a man in whom, perhaps, all of these violent urges conflict.
The film culminates in a series of extremely violent (and ridiculous) altercations, veering wildly between extremes (shotguns firing off left, right and centre, characters riding tricycles and playing bagpipe records, mantraps, boiling fat, fire, pokers, broken glass, wire). But the central relationship - the whole dynamic of the film - between David and Amy continues to fight definition, remaining ultimately unresolved and unclear.
In the end, aside of everything else (aside of the fact that this film lingers with you, you do not watch "Straw Dogs" and leave it at that, those "Straw Dogs" take up residence with you, for a while), you have the fact that this film would not get made today - the Dustin Hoffman character is too complex and too unsympathetic, and there are too many (coldly intellectual) questions raised by what goes on.
It is dissatisfying but intentionally so: this is Peckinpah's "Salo": it demonstrates that resolution is the most ugly abstraction, that what gets wrapped up leaves the viewer with no space for thought: that which is left open, is that which remains discussed. At the end, almost a week after last watching the film, I am reminded of what Ian McEwan wrote in his novel "Black Dogs": "...I came face to face with evil. I didn't quite know it at the time, but I sensed it in my fear - these animals were the creations of debased imaginations, of perverted spirits no amount of social theory could account for. And . . .when conditions are right . . . a terrible cruelty, a viciousness against life erupts, and everyone is surprised by the depth of hatred within . . . (But) This is what I know: Human nature, the human heart, the spirit, the soul, the consciousness itself - call it what you like - in the end, it's all we've got to work with. It has to develop and expand, or the sum of our misery will never diminish."
That is - at last - "Straw Dogs"' role: to develop, to expand, to show us what can be, what needn't be, but what is, and hope that something else (not necessarily finer) but something else, prevails.
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Comments

Tracked by 4 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 10 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Feb 27, 2009 6:52:08 AM PST
N. Chandran says:
great review. brings out the complexity of human nature and also shatters the illusion that everything in this world is understandable or reconcilable. i have not seen the movie - but if it lives up to this review i am sure it will be interesting.

Posted on Jul 24, 2009 7:26:48 PM PDT
R. Nortcliff says:
Wow. Thanks for taking the time with that. It makes me really wonder, do I want to see this. If I take a bite of the cake which is curiosity, I will get what I asked for . .but then it will be too late . .

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 20, 2009 6:43:57 AM PST
Kenneth Sohl says:
Interesting response. Being a long-time fan of Peckinpah, I can tell you that this review expresses exactly what the man's films are about.

Posted on Mar 20, 2010 6:31:04 AM PDT
*mild spoiler*
I grant that it's a trifling element of your review, but you're plain wrong about David paying attention to Janice Hedden; in fact, when he basically ignores her at the church social, she resolves to come on to Henry Niles.

Posted on Mar 30, 2010 11:59:37 AM PDT
As a great fan and admirer of all things Peckinpah, I must say that you have written a terrific review-- very interesting and so on point- thanks.

Posted on Sep 7, 2011 8:35:37 AM PDT
ah but it is remade for today and being release in the theaters later this month....

Posted on Sep 11, 2011 11:15:20 AM PDT
Paul Kyriazi says:
Wow, great writing style and review. Nice to revisit the film reading it.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 18, 2011 11:05:33 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Sep 18, 2011 11:18:59 AM PDT
Peter, thanks for your review, very impressive psychoanalysis of this movie. I will buy Peckimpah's original Straw Dogs (which I watched when I was 13 yrs old) and watch the new one tonight. Would love to read your take on the new one.
Sarpedon, your 5 cents added nothing to this review. If you have nothing smart to say, don't open your mouth and show the world otherwise!

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 2, 2012 11:52:25 PM PST
I don't understand your response to Sarpedon's comment. Not only was it accurate -- Hoffman is obviously not at all interested in the local girl -- but it was polite. Sarpedon specifically says that it was a minor correction and did not detract from the overall review. Your response, on the other hand, was anything but polite.

Posted on Apr 11, 2012 3:12:33 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Apr 11, 2012 3:12:56 PM PDT
I just revisited the REAL Straw Dogs last night (a few months after seeing the ludicrous remake), and this is a superb review. I've seen the film four times and this is the first time I've picked up much it is about David (Hoffman) screwing up his marriage by having absolutely no respect for his wife. In that context the evolving rape scene makes perfect and terrible sense.

Re: Sarpedon --
He is right, of course, that David pays no attention to Janice. However, the banter with Amy includes David encouraging her to "try for eight," because he has "a thing for 8-year-olds"... another of the terrible truths of this extraordinarily cold-eyed film.
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