Blu-Ray Review: Straw Dogs (1971)
Review by Stephanie Scaife – moderate spoilers ahead.
Sam Peckinpah’s most controversial film Straw Dogs finally makes its way on to Blu-Ray this week, just in time for its 40th anniversary and to coincide with the release of the remake (out in the UK on 4th November, and reviewed here). It was made during a difficult period in Peckinpah’s life when he’d been blacklisted by Hollywood, after the catastrophic production of The Ballad of Cable Hogue, and his drinking problem had started to take hold. Upon its release Straw Dogs was universally well received by critics but due to the violent content it somewhat predictably came into trouble with the censors, particularly here in the UK where it wasn’t available uncut until as recently as 2002.
Dustin Hoffman stars as David Sumner, an American academic and mathematician who moves with his beautiful young wife Amy (Susan George) to live on her family farm in her hometown of Wakely, a fictional West Country village. Almost immediately they run into conflict with the locals, Amy with Charlie (Del henney) the childhood sweetheart she’d left behind to attend university in America, and David doesn’t do himself any favours by walking into a pub and ordering “any kind of American cigarettes” whilst obliviously getting in-between a darts player and his board, living up to the stereotype of an arrogant American with a superiority complex. Not that the unwelcoming, borderline inbred and often hostile Cornish locals don’t equally live up to their own stereotypes.
David is a small, mild mannered man who goes completely out of his way to avoid any sort of physical or verbal conflict, making him the ideal target for the tough local group of handymen and layabouts that he hires to help fix up his garage, including Charlie who still clearly has an eye for the unruly Amy. Clearly frustrated Amy acts up and often behaves in a childish fashion; chewing gum loudly, messing with David’s mathematical formulae on his blackboard and just generally behaving in a belligerent manner. This of course is due to their marriage being on the rocks and David’s insistence on old fashioned ideals whereby he works and she takes care of the home. Amy however has other ideas; she resolutely refuses to wear a bra, believes she can control any situation and fawns over her cat (that David clearly hates).
Despite their problems David and Amy do have an obvious amount of affection and a great deal of love for one another, despite the unlikely pairing and age gap. Then just when things start to look like they may settle down for the couple, Amy’s cat turns up dead and David is goaded into an emasculating hunting trip that is merely a distraction to lure him away from the farm whilst Norman (Ken Hutchinson) and Charlie return to rape Amy. This pivotal scene is of course central to the majority of the controversy surrounding the film, primarily due to moral grey area that hangs over the scene. Initially Charlie appears and forces himself on to Amy; she protests at first but is seemingly coerced by Charlie into giving herself over to him and even perhaps enjoying the encounter. However, seconds after his apology Charlie betrays Amy again by holding her down whilst Norman assaults her. This second rape has none of the grey area of the first; it is brutal, violent and unquestionably committed against Amy’s will.
David never finds out about the rape, but Amy’s flashbacks during a local community event where she is confronted by her attackers is brilliantly portrayed via the use of editing during the scene, ending with her and David leaving the event early. At the same time the village idiot Niles (David Warner) is seduced by a local girl whom he accidentally strangles in a scene that is evocative of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Unaware of what Niles has done, David takes him into their farmhouse and protects him from the locals who are out for blood and revenge, culminating in a violent siege where David finally grows a pair and decides to defend himself and his property.
Straw Dogs has aged well and it definitely stands up to repeat viewings. However, I’ve never particularly understood its status as a classic or why it has been so lauded with praise and hailed as groundbreaking. I think it’s a perfectly acceptable psychological thriller that is often implausible but still effectively tense and occasionally thought provoking. Susan George and Dustin Hoffman along with the rest of the cast give strong performances, despite the fact that they are playing stereotypes and their motives aren’t always entirely clear. It is claimed by some, including Peckinpah’s biographer Garner Simmons, to be an anti-violence film, and that by having irrational and extreme violence erupting almost inexplicably on screen it is making a statement about the state of the world at large. I however don’t particularly buy into this; instead I view Peckinpah as more of a provocateur, merely attempting to push buttons by committing to screen acts of rape and violence hitherto unseen at the time of the film’s release in a bid to create a reaction and stir up emotions in the audience, which he ultimately succeeded in doing.
The Blu-Ray itself looks good with a 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer; there is even a before and after special feature that highlights the improvements made by the digital remastering of the film. The audio quality is also excellent, creating a great balance between the sound effects, dialogue and music. The disc comes packed with special features, although most of them are already on the DVD release from 2002, including a few informative if not slightly self-congratulatory interviews with Susan George, Dan Melnick and Garner Simmons, as well an amusing 1971 on location documentary and the usual host of commentaries, trailers and TV spots. Overall though it’s a strong package and definitely worth picking up if you are a fan of the film.
Straw Dogs: The Ultimate 40th Anniversary Blu-Ray is released on 24 October in the UK, from Freemantle Enterprises.