Straw Dogs

Still banned in Britain, Straw Dogs is concerned with the favorite theme of a reasonable man pushed beyond reason.

Director Sam Peckinpah has always had a perchance for ultra violent films. If the American Film Institute ever created a list of the most violent American films, Peckinpah would own the top ten. One of his most controversial films was Straw Dogs. Still banned in Britain, Straw Dogs is concerned with the favorite theme of a reasonable man pushed beyond reason.

Straw Dogs is filtered through the somewhat misogynist eyes of the director but even in this politically correct society we live in, it stands as a film classic. David (Dustin Hoffman), an American mathematician moves to a small rural English town with his young wife Amy (Susan George). For Amy this is a return to her hometown, for David it is a major change in lifestyle. All David wants from life is to work on his treatise in peace and quiet. David is a pacifist and as with many theoretical types needs little from the world at large. His wife is a bit of a tease. She walks around the house in various states of undress knowing the workmen are watching.

The group of workmen has little more than distain for the Yankee David. They see his reluctance to defend himself against their taunts as unforgivable weakness. This group of testosterone riddle misfits is lead by Charlie (Del Henney) a man who needs to bully others in order to justify his own existence. Things pick up when David and his wife hit a mildly retarded man, Henry (David Warner) who is suspected by the town as being responsible for the disappearance of a young local woman. When David brings the injured Henry home the workmen storm the home demanding they turn over Henry to them. What follows is a slowly escalating ride of terror for David and Amy. David has always prided himself for a logical mind and passive nature. Soon it becomes evident that these qualities, while admirable, will not be of any use to him in his current situation. He finds himself a man proud of his reason pushed beyond any reasonable means of resolving the conflict.

The cast is well done here in Straw Dogs. Some of the characters are little more than two-dimensional stereotypes. Peckinpah is not known for creating female characters of much depth. Amy, as played by George is Peckinpah’s concept of a young, pretty woman, sexual but lacking the strength shown in men. George is a much better actress than this role shows. Here she follows her director but it provides little chance for her talent to show through. In contrast to this Hoffman shines. The audience gets to know a little about David. He is a quiet man who just wants to be left alone to work. This exclusion often affects his wife who finds her needs not met in their marriage. As the story progresses we see a visible change in David. With an actor the caliber of Hoffman this transmogrification occurs slowly, one degree at a time. We can see the external pressures build in David as Hoffman slowly changes his inflections and body language. Hoffman gets into the skin of his character, as few actors are capable of achieving. Henney also suffers from the lack of character development afforded by his role. Here, a bully is a stick figure, driven only by the conflict between his macho attitudes and his personal insecuties. Warner fairs a little better in the role of Henry. His performance is reminiscent of Duval in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. Henry is gentle and misunderstood without a clue as to why the world is against him.

Most sensible people would find great distain if they were forced to live in a world created by director Sam Peckinpah. It is prone to sudden fits of extreme violence. His world is full of misogynistic attitudes and men are divided into two basic classes, real men and wimps. Unlike other Peckinpah classics like ‘The Wild Bunch’ and the remake of ‘The Getaway’, Straw Dogs does not rely on pervasive violence. In Straw Dogs, the violence builds slowly until it explodes at the end when David has exhausted all reasonable options. The audience sits by watching a fuse slowly work its way to the explosives. Peckinpah takes great care in building the suspense slowly, pacing Straw Dogs to perfection.

Since most of know that Peckinpah films are violent we needn’t guess at the outcome. The difference here is he forces us to wait as the tension mounts. Straw Dogs starts off very slowly. The audience begins to feel uncomfortable. This feeling builds as the antagonism between David and Del grows. The view is on a ride that we know ends in sudden and complete annihilation of values. We watch as the humane David becomes what he hates the most, an animalistic, violent man.

Unlike the previous Anchor Bay edition this Criterion Collection release is packed with extras. Moved up to a two disc set it now includes Commentary by Film Scholar Stephen Prince, a 82 minute documentary of Peckinpah's recollections, a 26 minute Hoffman review of the location as well as cast and crew interviews. The video is anamorphic 1.77:1 moved up from the non-anamorphic previous version. There are some notable defects present but nothing too distracting. The audio is Dolby two channel mono. While there is not specific surround information present it does a passable job. I found that bypassing the normal digital sound of the DVD and using the Simulate Prologic mode provided a slightly better sound field. If you are a Peckinpah fan this is a must own disc. If you just want a well-constructed film filled with passion and grit get it. If you are squeamish in any way shape or form, move on.

Review by Doug MacLean of

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