Top critical review
doesn't hang together
on June 7, 2003
What works in this film? The superb pacing of the climactic sequence. The long seige of the isolated farmhouse will have your whole body clenched with tension.
What doesn't work? Just about everything else, unfortunately.
People often compare this film to "A Clockwork Orange", another violent film that came out around the same time. But what these films really share, I think, is the yoking together of violence with a highly contrived narrative.
In "A Clockwork Orange", the world of the narrative is populated by two kinds of people: predators and morons. If you aren't one, you're the other. Also, the entire culture is decadent from top to bottom. (Even the victims of Alex's predations are clearly seen to participate in that decadence.) Within this context, Alex's violence is somehow supposed to read as an expression of his "freedom", which the quasi-fascist government wants to "take away" from him.
But the whole game is rigged. Any *realistic* perspective on human behavior would have to see Alex's violence as a direct outgrowth of the corrupt society he lives in -- not at all "free self-expression". Similarly, any *realistic* depiction of a future society would have to populate it with more kinds of people than predators and morons. Instead, Kubrick gives us a society whose one-sidedness makes it pure fantasy, and posits an idea about "freedom" that's also pure fantasy. Does this film tell us one useful thing about violence or freedom in the *real world*? I don't think so. From the beginning, the deck is stacked against the audience.
I have similar thoughts about "Straw Dogs".
First of all, the characters in the film are a compendium of stereotypes: a cold, milquetoast scholar (who is NOT, as some other reviewers here claim, a "pacifist", but on the contrary someone who has refused altogether to "take a stand" on the social turmoil back in the US), a young vixenish wife, and a small town seemingly populated entirely by leering thugs. With THAT combination of elements, the outcome of the narrative is a foregone conclusion. The next hour and a half is just a waiting game.
And it's a very contrived game. As several other reviewers have pointed out, the very existence of the relationship between the two principles has no credibility. Nor does it go anywhere remotely interesting: she complains, he tells her to go away. I suspect that the reason Susan George's character comes across as "complex" is because her behavior isn't consistent from one scene to the next. The most glaring example of this is the aftermath of the rape. Why doesn't she tell her husband what has happened immediately, and get on the next plane back to the States? Well, I guess because the story would stop right there. There's certainly no *human* reason for it.
Indeed, I think this is the real reason the rape scene seems exploitative. The issue isn't just that she seems to "enjoy" it -- though some effort is made to justify this from an emotional standpoint -- it's that since she doesn't mention it to her husband, the rape scene adds nothing to the forward motion of the story. It could simply be cut from the film and the story would unfold just the same. In terms of the plot, the scene is truly "gratuitous", in the broadest sense of the term.
Meanwhile, the husband's simultanous coolness with his wife and deferral of confrontation with the workers just doesn't go anywhere. It doesn't add up to any new insight about the character. Every time Hoffman's character does something mean, goofy, or stupid, it feels like pure plot device -- like the writers are going through the motions of "story development" without having an actual story to develop.
The most interesting contrivance of the film, for me, is the representation of the town hooligans. If you want to point to the film's "fascism" (or latent fascism), it's there. Fascism isn't just about masculinism-as-violence. It's about an absolute and total terror of "the other". It's about paranoia, and expressing that paranoia by violently obliterating the object of your paranoia. And I think the film gives a very vivid representation of male paranoia.
As soon as the husband and wife come into town, they are the subject of scrutiny. Everyone stares at them. The men ogle the wife and smirk at the husband whenever he comes into the pub. The men stare through the windows of the house when they're at work -- and at night, two local highschoolers voyeuristically snoop through the same windows. In this way, "Straw Dogs" is as much a fantasy as "Clockwork Orange" -- but it's a fantasy of male paranoia. "For gods sake, everyone's looking at me! Those big men over there -- they're laughing at my lack of masculinity! And they're after my wife! And I can't trust my wife either!" No one in the universe of "Straw Dogs" has any existence outside their threatening relationship to the husband.
What's "fascist" (or proto-fascist) about the film is that it is more than happy to supply a pack of by-definition-hostile monsters which can then summarily be blown away. Because it creates such one-dimensional attackers, in terms of any "statement about violence", the film is no more sophisticated than, say, "Aliens". (And it's just this kind of paranoid fear of the "marauding other" that fascist (and, in light of recent events, democratic) governments are themselves more than happy to exploit in order to justify aggressive, pre-emptive wars.)
The point is, "Straw Dogs" is composed of a whole set of unlikely, contrived, and / or underdeveloped elements, held together by an emotional glue of male paranoia. Sure, the siege sequence is great. But any other interest it has (at least for me) is not in any coherent statement it makes about violence in the real world, but rather in its vivid -- and, I think, not at all intentional -- representation of pathological male terror.