Chekhov’s mantrap isn’t a term that I ever predicted to type, but I hadn’t yet been introduced to the world of writer/director Sam Peckinpah. To say that his 1971 film Straw Dogs was met with controversy would be underselling it quite a bit. The film is so attached to the term that providing any review or analysis of it carries the possibility of ruffling some feathers. Critical opponents have argued that the film is a glorification of violence toward women, and honestly it is not difficult to fault them for that opinion since misogyny makes up a huge part of the film’s thematic DNA. Nor could you fault them for the assertion that the main takeaway from the picture is that the only way to survive in a world full of cavemen is to become a caveman yourself. A large portion of these critics thought so and immediately dismissed the film as nothing more than Peckinpah’s depraved perspective on violence that relies on shock and controversy more than actual artistry. This begs the question though: is Straw Dogs a depiction of this ultimate male-power fantasy, the fascistic wet dream? Or, has Peckinpah instead constructed a complex, misunderstood masterpiece where the true meaning is not that absolute?
The story begins with married couple David (Dustin Hoffman) and Amy (Susan George), who have recently relocated to Amy’s hometown, a small British village. David has recently acquired a grant for mathematical research and plans on using his time to get some peace and quiet to conduct his work. In doing so, he has escaped from his position at an American university during a time of national divisiveness and Vietnam War protests by students. David is the type of person who flinches away from violence and tries to avoid it completely. However, he likes to assert his intellectual dominance over others, especially his wife, whom he criticizes for immaturity. This creates seeds of turmoil in their marriage, as the film begins in conflict with the couple bickering at each other constantly. Amy is very different from David; whereas he is viewed as a strange outsider by the locals, she is very much from the area. She attempts to make the marriage work, but her attempts are brushed off as David would rather pay attention to his blackboard than attend to his wife. The one place they do have a connection is in the bedroom, but even then David has to maintain a sort of control. He’ll stop in the middle of their passion to take off his watch or set the alarm for the next morning, which alienates Amy.
This would probably simply be a film about a crumbling marriage if it weren’t for the next piece of the equation. David has hired some of the locals, including an ex-lover of Amy’s named Charlie, to do some housework during his and his wife’s stay. These men may be polite to David in conversation, but it is obvious they have no respect for this outsider who has married one of their own. This creates an interesting situation for David where his normal condescending nature isn’t as effective. The laborers view David, with all of his intellectual superiority and odd mannerisms, as less of a man. Amy also shares some of these same views concerning her husband; she would love it if David would stand up for himself to the workers and be more assertive. Although David talks big, in the heat of the moment he’ll stop short of doing so. This is out of a desire to inflate his own ego to be a sort of king of the cavemen, even though deep down he resents them and thinks of himself as being better. This is the type of role in which Hoffman excels; he injects David with an awkward clumsiness that almost makes him lovable despite the negative aspects of the character. Hoffman’s portrayal makes it easy to root for him against the likes of someone like Charlie. The lack of respect by the laborers even goes as far as Charlie making advances on Amy despite the chance of David viewing from afar. Charlie simply doesn’t care if David is watching and doesn’t even consider him a threat.
Amy’s reaction to this is complicated, as just like everything else in Straw Dogs, nothing comes easy. Although she rebukes Charlie’s flirtation, there is also a part of her that appreciates the attention. Amy herself may have roots in the village, but in returning from America she has brought back ideas of feminism reflective of the era. Her introduction into the film is a close-up on her chest where she is noticeably bra-less under her shirt. She’s perfectly fine with flaunting herself in full view of others, which is also apparent in a scene where she adjusts her pantyhose in front of the workers or another in which she stands topless at a window in full view of them. Despite assertions from some critics, she is not “asking for it.” To believe so is an oversight; what she is actually doing is taking a stand with her femininity. Yes, she likes the attention but at the same time is taunting the workers and views them with disgust. They are beneath her. George puts plenty of pep into the performance of Amy, and I feel it would be safe to assume she could have been a star cheerleader in her small, rural village by the way people flock to her. The viewer flocks to her as well, for George represents the emotional center of the film, displaying a wide range of emotions throughout. There is no way playing this role could have been easy for her, but she proves herself to be up to the task and nails the nuances called for by the character.
These conflicts serve as the heartbeat of the film and create a situation that begins as taunts and pranks by the laborers but then escalates as the film rolls on. Peckinpah’s talents are on full display as he builds tension similar to the way a spring works on a man-trap. The spring is stretched and is just begging to retract only do so with a great violent force when finally set off. These moments are not an easy watch either, as Peckinpah seems just as concerned about putting his audiences through emotional havoc as he does his characters on screen. The look of the film is just as dreary as the subject matter. Dense fog permeates many of the scenes, and even the interior of the cottage with its stone construction feels cold. Isolation is a common thread throughout, not only with the cottage seemingly being located away from civilization but also in Peckinpah’s way of framing. He makes use of wide angles to draw attention to the empty space around characters, and even in many scenes where David and Amy are close together they either have their backs turned to us or are somewhat obstructed from view. The film really shines in its editing, where Peckinpah takes a virtuoso approach in using jump cuts. Combined with his innovative use of slow-motion, these technical aspects serve as an assault on the senses with many scenes registering at once as chaotic and yet somehow structured.
This film has so long been derided for its use of violence and sexual violence that it carries a reputation, not unlike another work released in 1971: A Clockwork Orange. Although Peckinpah’s filmmaking techniques work to enhance these moments and make the metaphorical cuts to the audience’s moral conscience feel deep, the violence was actually not gratuitous. The majority of the more violent moments were either obscured from the camera, downplayed by use of editing, or shot in wide angle away from the larger view of the audience. A slight exception to this occurs during what is probably the film’s most notorious sequence, which carries details I’d rather leave unspoiled. In this sequence, the camera is placed in the perspective of the characters involved so that the event itself is in full, close-up view of the audience. However, despite the reprehensible violence that is occurring, Peckinpah is more interested in the reactions of the characters than the act itself.
Not to say that it is not a violent film, but rather than being solely about violence the focus is more on the psychological reaction to it. This is where I believe many critics missed the mark during their initial appraisal of the film; Peckinpah is not endorsing the acts that are occurring onscreen. There’s no glory or celebration that comes from committing these acts; nobody wins. Any initial satisfaction in doing so reveals itself to be false, just as in a scene when David goes duck hunting with the laborers. He is initially shown to be clumsy holding a gun, and a bit out of his element with the more experienced workers, but he eventually proves himself to be capable enough to shoot one. He is initially gratified by this, but then walks over and picks up the duck carcass. He then looks at it confused, similar to a child having faced death for the first time. His reaction is to throw the duck into a bush where he then tries to wipe the blood off of his hands by using his sweater. He may regret killing the duck, but that doesn’t change the fact that the duck is dead. Sometimes you can’t go home again.
Straw Dogs is a complex film with complex characters, but it is also a complicated work displaying the cruelty of men. Watching it is an unnerving experience, especially due to the unrelenting nature and how it barrages the viewer’s mind with its conduct. It is not just the images themselves that are so unnerving; instead, it is the psychological ramifications occurring as a result. This is what separates Straw Dogs from, let’s say, something like Hostel. However, comparing Sam Peckinpah to Eli Roth as film directors is akin to separating the men from the boys. I probably shouldn’t use that analogy when writing about this film, but you get the picture. As it stands, the controversial reputation is earned, but there is much more to this work than its reputation will lead you to believe.