Top critical review
Once Upon A Time in The West Country - WARNING: plot spoiler
on December 22, 2002
Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs is set in deepest darkest Cornwall among a collection of yokels and idiots that would give the inbreds from Deliverence a run for their money the half witted sexual deviant stakes. Leaving aside obvious grievances that the Cornwall Tourist Board will have with the film, what lies beneath the surface of this slick and stylish Western-by-the-sea ia a far more intriguing, puzzling and reasonably disturbing proposition. Taking residence in the quiet, backwoods (surely backwards?) english county with his english wife, Amy (Susan George), mathematician David Summer (Dustin Hoffman) is hoping the peaceful rural surroundings will help him finish a theory he is working on. Only problem, this is Amy's birth place, and the couple are soon stirring the attentions of the locals, particularly Amy's ex-boyfriend. And the attentions are not exactly welcome.
Peckinpah's odyssey of masculine enlightenment is troubling in a number of ways. There, is of course, the now infamous rape scene, itself considered too daring by UK censors for the best part of twenty years due to its "she likes it really" philosophy. This may grab all the headlines, but the real trouble here is with the issues this, and the later siege at the cottage, present to the audience.
Straw Dogs is essentially a film about the empowering effect of affirmative of affirmative action, of violence. In its exploration of primal urges and instinct it probably shares more in common with a film such as Fight Club than the 'Rape' films of its era, such as Clockwork Orange, with which it is constantly and unfairly bracketed. Peckinpah's film is a much darker and more intriguing piece than Kubrick's modern morality fable, but intrigue does not always guarantee satisfaction. He is grappling with a serious and sensitive idea here, and he has to applauded for his bravery in doing so, although Peckinpah was never one to shy away from 'difficult' issues. But for all his intentions (good or otherwise) it is maybe this gung-ho, no holds barred balls in hand attitude that is the films flaw. The final scene, in which David, who has for the majority of the film been avoiding any kind of conversation, much to the annoyance of Amy, dispatches the various locals who are attempting to break into his house in a variety of gruesome ways, is probably the most troubling. As he drives away from the scene, David allows himself a self-satisfied smile. He has become empowered, more of a 'man'. This allied, to the rape scenes "she likes a bit of rough" sentiments seem to create a rather simplistic and quite ugly moral philosophy. Amy is raped by her ex, who to her is the symbol of the rugged primal male psyche which she has for too long been deprived of from David. Men should be men and anyway thats how women want them to be anyway, regardless of whatever deeper implications others may place on the film, seems really to be its message.
The blame for this can really only be pointed at one man, Sam Peckinpah. Peckinpah is one of America's greatest directors, but his mysoginistic tendencies hamper his handling of a complex matter. The film is fascinating, watchable, interesting and nigh on essential for followers of cinema, but it is hard to watch it without being confused by its intentions, and without taking away a slightly sour taste in the mouth.
It would be difficult to call the film an honourable failure, so an interesting one would be more appropriate. Still, imagine what would have happened if Hitchcock had directed it... I dread to think.