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Part of that post-Hays Code renaissance of cinema in the sixties and
seventies, 'Straw Dogs' is a fantastic portrayal of what happens when
man is pushed too far. The man in question is David Sumner (Dustin
Hoffman), an American mathematician who moves into a new house in
England with wife Amy (Susan George). What starts out as bullying by
some of the local hooligans becomes something much more sinister and
extreme, forcing David to react in kind.
To understand just how disturbing 'Straw Dogs' is, you only need to look at the fact that it was banned in the UK until 2002. It pulls no punches, it really doesn't. Violence and sex are expressed unflinchingly, shot with an unsettling level of detail and intimacy, creating a sense of dread that permeates through the movie. This is easily a precursor to movies like 'Funny Games', which relies on the same intensity.
But more than the actual violence itself, it's the slow build to these sequences that are memorable. You could probably class this as a psychological thriller, but I think 'Straw Dogs' is at its heart a character study. David Sumner's evolution is a lesson in character development, and Dustin Hoffman's performance is a lesson in acting. From first scene to last, he is magnetic, stealing every scene he's in. I couldn't really imagine any other actor expressing the nuances and layers of the character the way Hoffman does. Susan George, too, probably gives the best performance of her career, and the chemistry between the two is excellent.
There should never have been a remake of this film; really annoys me that there was. No way that the performances of Hoffman and George could be recreated, as could not the unsettling nature of the original. This should be watched at all costs.
Perhaps it's not really the Sam Peckinpah movie some people expect it
to be but it's a real fine movie nonetheless.
It's not as violent as other Peckinpah movies (at least not till its final 20 minutes or so) and it's actually being more of a psychological thriller than anything else really. It's also a more of slow moving and subtly build up one, that takes its time to set up its character and to build up all of its tension.
But saying this is a psychological thriller doesn't mean it's being a very typical one as well. It's still a movie with its very own style and approach to the genre. It's as if Sam Peckinpah ignored the existence of all of the other genre movies out there and simply decided to do his own thing with it. The result is a real unique looking and feeling genre movie, that is a greatly constructed- and acted out one.
The style gets only enhanced by the fact that this is a '70's movie. That means that it's filled with some nice looking and experimental camera-work and editing. It's mostly a dark and gritty looking movie, that perfectly captures the atmosphere of rural England.
Because it's being a somewhat slower moving movie, it mostly relies on its characters and actors to keep things going and interesting. And this movie manages well with doing so. What I liked about Dustin Hoffman's performance and character was that he was being a very average guy, in about every way imaginable. And even more than that; he was being somewhat of a weakling and pushover, until things go too far.
Like basically every Peckinpah movie, this movie has a big and violent showdown, with still a very humane and emotional touch to it. Lets just say it's like "Home Alone" gone wild, after the main character finally decides to make a stand against the 'evil' townspeople. It's not half as ridicules as it might sound to you and it's something that absolutely works out well, since it's basically the moment the entire movie had been building up to.
A greatly done psychological thriller with some rich characters and great depth to it as well.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Peckinpah's notorious rape and siege film is starting to look a little
dated now and the scenes that once made it so controversial look almost
tame compared to some of the excess we've been subjected to in the near
forty years since it was originally released. Take away that
controversy and you're pretty much left with a slow-moving (although
not necessarily boring) first half which suddenly becomes an entirely
different film for its final reel.
Paradoxically, Dustin Hoffman is miscast but gives the film's best performance as David Sumner, a mild-mannered mathematician with an improbably foxy wife in the nubile form of a young Susan George. The couple, whose marriage is clearly on the verge of disintegrating, have moved to a cottage in the Cornish countryside near the village where Amy (George) once lived, and it's not long before an old flame begins sniffing around.
The relationship between David and Amy is a problematic one: it's as if these two disparate characters one cerebral and thoughtful, the other by turns flighty and moody have been thrown together purely for the purposes of the film. They just aren't convincing as a couple in a relationship with (presumably) a substantial past together behind them. Peckinpah also draws his characters with broad strokes on the one side are the labourers: virile, violent, heavy-drinking, on the other the thinkers: David, the reverend and the local justice of the peace, and between them lies no middle ground at all. They're like two battle camps cautiously eyeing one another across a field, with absolutely no idea about why they are about to go to war
The women in the film are even more badly drawn. They are either prim types, adjuncts to their male partners with nothing to say, or flirtatious sex-bombs whose fates (death and buggery) are a direct result of their sexual nature.
Despite this, Peckinpah fashions quite an effective thriller, especially in the last half-hour. Improbable as David's turnaround is it panders to the lower person in us all who demands revenge even if the person meting it out is unaware that he is doing so. David has to revert to a basic savage instinct in order to protect his home, an impulse shared with descendants stretching right back to the caveman, and so to do so he has to become like the men he is fighting against (as, to a degree, does the viewer who is rooting for him to overcome them). It's a ludicrous conclusion, one that completely negates all that we have learned about Sumner, and yet it's still infuriatingly satisfying.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The more that I can relate to a certain character in a film, the more I
tend to get into that film and look for truths in the character's
feelings, motivations, and actions. And in this film, I can relate to
Dustin Hoffman's college math professor David Sumner. This may be
Hoffman's greatest overlooked performance. Hoffman's Sumner and his
wife Amy, played to sexy, alluring, heartbreaking perfection by British
actress Susan George, move to a cottage in her hometown on the English
countryside where Hoffman will teach math at a local university. Their
home needs extensive renovations, so Hoffman hires some local
ne'er-do-wells, and old acquaintances of Amy's, to make the needed
repairs. This group of locals unfortunately gets re-acquainted with Amy
all too well. They set it up so that one of them takes Sumner out to
hunt while the rest of them rape her at the cottage one day. Once he
'finds out' (it is never really established if he knows for sure if it
was rape or just sex), initially, he does nothing and even seems to
look at Amy as being promiscuous and to have asked for it, since she
flirted with these guys earlier on. Also, Sumner is very smallish in
stature and fairly weak and wouldn't stand a chance against the bullies
in a fight. And all the while, these thugs still hang around and make
fun of Sumner and Amy and taunt them throughout the movie, even after
their despicable, heinous act. It is at the end of the film that Sumner
decides to get tough with these guys and defend his home and wife's
honor (although it is very debatable this is the reason why he did
this) by not allowing them to kill a mentally impaired man that had
just done something bad to one of the gang's relatives.
The movie is very shocking in parts and there are a lot of character close-ups that give it a claustrophobic feel. Typical to a Peckinpah film, there are a lot of violent moments, especially at the end, and disgusting characters. The ending scenes are extremely powerful and are some of the most disturbing moments you'll ever see in a film. There are several ironic, unexpected twists at the end.
As stated before, I can totally relate to David Sumner, who is a real fish-out-of-water and very ordinary man being mocked and ridiculed by a bunch of thuggish bullies. His motivations for doing what he does at the end may not be completely right or honorable, but it is the act itself, defending his home and what is his, that on the surface appears honorable. The end of the movie is almost open-ended, making you really think about what just happened and did Sumner really do the right thing.
"Straw Dogs" is a powerful film. Powerful both in its graphic violence
and the emotion it suggests. It is also a very chaotic film attempting
to run several sub-plots parallel with one another.
We have, as a central character, a mathematician (Dustin Hoffman) who is timid in nature and seemingly afraid to stand his ground in the face of opposition. Then there is his beautiful young wife (Susan George) who is desperate for his attention, and it is suggested during her rape that she may be sexually unfulfilled. We have the "village idiot" who has committed some act of pedophilia that has the town on edge. Then there is the town drunken bully who it would seem can only be controlled by the town magistrate. We finally have the young, sexually-awakening teen girl who has a crush on Hoffman. All of these "issues" converge with one another in a volatile conclusion.
"Straw Dogs" is such a perfect example of the 70's dramas like "Looking For Mr. Goodbar", "The French Connection", and even "Marathon Man". Much like the music of Nirvana, they start out relatively mellow and crescendo into a chaotic roar. The problem is that when the credits role, the train fails to stop, and the viewer is propelled into the blackness of uncertainty.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Sam Peckinpah's Cornish western has a heritage of controversy trailing
in its wake. Perceived by turns as being misogynistic, exploitative,
pornographic and gratuitously violent, it was labelled a "video nasty"
in the 1980's and was consequently banned from view in the UK until the
tail end of the nineties. An intriguing pedigree.
Essentially, what we have is a movie that uproots some of the values, morality and themes governing the mythic cinematic western and transplants them into an English backwater community. The locals are restless, being envious of and despising the American strangers (Dustin Hoffman and wife Susan George) who intrude on their redneck world. The fact that Hoffman's wife used to be one of their own serves to make matters worse, increasing both tension and conflict.
Hoffman wants to avoid trouble and remain peaceable, but ultimately is pushed too far when his cat is killed, wife is raped and his homestead is laid siege to by his tormentors. He stubbornly offers shelter to Niles, the village idiot, who has just inadvertently killed a young girl. His refusal to surrender the man to the (lynch) mob initiates the violent finale. The stage is set for a man doing what a man's gotta do, and this translates as holding the fort whilst killing and maiming as many of the attacking natives as possible.
The controversy surrounding the film stems primarily from the issues of sex and violence. When Amy (Susan George) is raped by one villager she responds ambiguously by first seeming resistant and naturally unwilling to participate and then appearing to enjoy the experience, encouraging her attacker (who is also an ex-boyfriend). This duality of attitude, this ambivalent mixed message towards forced sex upset many a feminist and non-feminist alike at the time and led to accusations of exploitation and misogyny on the part of the director. Compounding the situation is the fact that immediately following this first act of sexual abuse, Peckinpah then has the Amy character anally raped by another villager. Ultimately, her response is to conceal these events from her husband and appear no more than slightly withdrawn, petulant and a bit miffed. Any psychological and emotional trauma or physical discomfort or damage she may have experienced is ignored and unexplored. In fact, if one is honest, Peckinpah actually succeeds in trivialising rape. Events earlier in the film clearly suggest that she "was asking for it anyway." Amy is seen to "tease" the locals by appearing naked at her window whilst they work on her barn roof outside. This monumentally sexist attitude provoked outrage in the early 1970's and no major filmmaker today would be likely to get away with such an approach to the subject matter. Peckinpah argued that it was in fact cuts by the British censor that actually succeeded in making the rape scenes appear more pornographic and less politically correct than his original intent but I'm inclined to take this with a pinch of salt.
The violence at the end involves a foot being blown off with a shotgun, a beating with a poker, boiling water being thrown into faces and a semi-decapitation with a man-trap. By today's standards, they can hardly be considered gratuitous or graphic in their depiction. However, it is a testament to Peckinpah's skill as a filmmaker and Dustin Hoffman and Susan George's performances that the experience of the siege is both powerful and harrowing. The drunken mob are suitably menacing, mindless, obnoxious and deserving of their fate. It's an exciting end to what is essentially a slow-burning and action-free movie constructed primarily to gradually crank-up the tension until the climax. In this sense the film does not disappoint. Hoffman gives a nervy, slightly-wired, pacifistic almost to the point of cowardice type of performance throughout that contributes magnificently to the build-up. His character finally snaps under pressure from all the insults, goading and abuse he has received from his antagonists. He utilises the provision of a safe-haven for the mentally challenged Niles more as an excuse to exact revenge, to force a confrontation, than to satisfy any moral rationale he may harbour. The stand-off is not even about retribution for the rape of his wife, more an affirmation of his own manhood, standing up to the bully, facing down the bad guys. Typical macho Peckinpah ideology steeped in Western mythology.
To conclude, Straw Dogs is a fascinating and essential film by a master craftsman. In technical terms, it builds a sense of suspense and ever-increasing dread in the audience with almost clinical expertise. The climax is nearly as cleverly choreographed as the finale to The Wild Bunch only framed by different culture and in different context. If you can ignore the faintly repugnant ideology behind the rape sequence (which probably says more about Peckinpah's personal attitude towards women than anything else) then this is a true 70's classic that even today has the power to shock and enthral.
There has never really been a movie quite like 'Straw Dogs', and it is
debatable whether there ever will be again. I say this because I don't
think I've ever seen such an intense depiction of violence--sexual and
otherwise. The film is uncompromising in this regard. No other
filmmaker but Peckinpagh could have made a movie like this. I remember
seeing this movie in a movie theater when it was released in 1971 and
the only other film that even comes close was 'Deliverance'
(ironically, a movie which came out just a year later) and that was for
just one scene, i.e., Ned Beatty being raped by a bunch of hillbilly
rednecks while deep in the Georgia woods. Susan George is perfectly
cast despite being not up to Hoffman's acting abilities; likewise, the
rest of the actors are so believable that you forget you are watching a
Enjoy this film.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
When I first saw Straw Dogs I thought it was really sick. But after the
second viewing, I realised that the film wasn't actually that bad. It
did depict a double rape scene quite graphically and there were some
shockingly violent moments (a guy shoots his toe off with a shotgun)but
that's about it.
The film built up a lot of suspense after a slow start, then went head-first into the violence at the end. The infamous rape seen is what builds the most suspense as you're waiting on edge thinking "is this the scene" as soon as the film starts.
Overall, a good thriller that didn't deserve the video nasty status it got given by the critics, however, it is still rather nasty so be warned those easily offended.
7 out of 10
OK..So for some it would seem Straw Dogs doesn't hit the nerve, and I
understand that in someways. After all Straw Dogs is indeed Hofmans
least known work..but why? Well the film was banned for many years due
to its sexual content and somewhat violent ending. In order to really
enjoy this film you have to remove your 21st century brain and place
yourself in the context of the early 70s. Watch the film with care and
you will see so many tried and tested film making methods that you will
soon lose count, but thats the point. Old hat now, but as fresh as a
daisy then. Sure the film lacks some of the pace that by methodology we
have come to accept as the recognized bench mark for a good movie. But
again onto my next point..the film doers not meet the recognized
standard but rather creates its own ideal. The pace being weighted to
capture the mood.
So add all the above up and whats my summary.
Straw Dogs was for its time unique and became the setting for so many latter films. The violence in this movie is not only felt from the outside but also the inside. The movie is a one of and unique exploration into human relationships and the powers that make us what we are.
I liked this film. Other user comments say it's very slow for the first
hour, but I disagree. It's slow perhaps in the way Taxi Driver is slow.. ie
you can sense a build up of tension, you can sense that something is going
to happen. It's very watchable.
It's another example of 70s films being far superior to the Hollywood tripe being served up to us at cinemas at present. In a similar way to Deliverance, you can see the character development as the film progresses, and how people can change where circumstances force their hand.
I also appreciate the lack of attempted comedy in this film If this film was remade today, no doubt it'd be full of low quality American "humour".
Well worth watching.
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