Monday, June 9, 2008


"Rats is life."

I've been seeing a lot of movies lately that seem to want to provoke me to question the line between cinematic violence and its effect on the viewer, and by extension, the consequences of violence in the real world. From the tonal shifts and preachy morality in the Rambo series to the visceral invitations of The Strangers and even the question of what a man must do to protect his own moral standing in High Noon, the question comes up again and again: is violence ever avoidable, and are we just as guilty watching it as the men who engage in it?

In this regard, Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs has always been a bit of a sticky wicket. As with most of Peckinpah's films, there is an uneasy divide between the little boy glee with which the violence is shown and the old man acceptance of the broken bodies that pile up as a result. In Straw Dogs, Peckinpah points to accepted divisions between men of thought and men of action, between doves and hawks, only to muddy the lines by goading his liberal wimp (Dustin Hoffman) to become an avenging angel. Released in 1971, Hoffman's character, David Sumner, resorts to vigilante justice in the same year that audiences cheered on Dirty Harry and three years before Charles Bronson would take on his Death Wish. Even as recently as this year, Sylvester Stallone forced the hand of another pacifying do-gooder in the newest blood-soaked adventure of John Rambo, but that was just a footnote, the great Goliath kicking sand in the face of a would-be David. Straw Dogs is an entire movie of this single story point.

American mathematician Sumner moves with his wife Amy (Susan George) to the Cornish town where she grew up. David expects to find a quiet, rural existence waiting for him, but instead he discovers that the men of the village are far less sophisticated than he had imagined. Living off the land and by their hands, they see David as easy prey. The husband is given little concern when the gang's ringleader, Charlie (Del Henney), decides that he wants to rekindle his old flame with Amy. Charlie and another man eventually rape Amy, and the thugs push David as far as they can, until he finally snaps and retaliates. Brutal violence erupts, and its outcome would traditionally be that wrongs are righted and David becomes the man he's always been meant to be.

Only it's not as simple as all that. With Peckinpah it never is. There is a streak of misanthropy in all of Sam's work that dismisses more conventional distinctions of right and wrong. There aren't even really winners or losers. Just some guys are left standing, some are not.

Where many get hung up on Straw Dogs is in the depiction of Amy. In some ways, she leads her old boyfriend on, and in some sense, she could be seen as enjoying it when she is raped. The graphic nature of this and other scenes caused Straw Dogs to be subjected to the censor's scissors for many years, particularly in England. Ironically, it was these cuts that made Amy's complicity in her own attack seem undeniable. Seen at the full 117 minutes running time, however, such misunderstandings quickly fade. Or they at lest become less clear-cut.

Arguably, Peckinpah is far less misogynist than his characters, and if there is any division he allows to remain in his cinematic world, it's the one between men and women. He sees the males as brutes who only desire one thing: sex and violence, inseparable components of the single pursuit of primitive pleasure. The masculine existence is one of either/or. Either you are up, or you are down. Your foot is on someone's neck, or you are the one being stepped on. The feminine existence is capable of nuance and change, of feeling something more than what is there on the surface, and thus can be misunderstood. Though Amy clearly sees a line she will not cross with Charlie and insists he not cross it, he ignores her and does so anyway. What could be mistaken for enjoyment is more the tear-stained acceptance of an outcome she cannot stop, and that acceptance only allows it to get worse.

Then, as if to rally and substantiate Peckinpah's doubts about humanity, the people sitting in their chairs and watching it happen accuse Amy of liking it.

The hypocrisy is tragically comical when you think about it: in order to prove that Pekinpah is despicable, his critics are willing to toss out any progress we've gained in victim's rights by so quickly rushing to say that Amy asked for it. When we first see Amy, she is walking through the town wearing no bra, her nipples erect, attracting the attention of every many she passes. She is being followed by a younger woman (Sally Thomset) with a man-trap Amy has just purchased--a larger version of a bear trap--and the symbolism is clear in its bluntness (it looks like a serrated vagina). Amy later asks why she should have to wear a bra just because men can't control themselves. The fact that she is a sexual being should not be the sole reason for her to be persecuted. In one sense, her rights need to be defended, but in another, David feels she should know that a physical display of that kind will attract unwanted attention. That's how nature works. In this, Peckinpah gets the last laugh: the thinkers are once again stuck in their own thoughts, ready to condemn with word rather than actually do something about it.

Of course, the joke double-backs on me, because to defend Peckinpah in this instance is somehow to say that David is eventually right, you can't accept that men are animals and then not expect them to fight. How very masculine! Either/or.

My dodge here is that I don't think Peckinpah feels that David is right, either. His stance is more one of pity that civilization's efforts to mask man's animal state are so easily dismantled. There is no nobility in that. The statement made by David's shotgun is not so much a "I did what I was supposed to do" or "I did what I had to do" but "What else would you have me do?" There is no other answer to man's inhumanity to man. The violent response is effective but false, like a straw man argument. In this case, the straw dog is prodded into being feral but easily knocked down. In truth, we are not dogs anyway. As the rat catcher tells us, rats are everywhere, and they are us and we are they.*

If Peckinpah seems to lean toward condemning David it's because David refuses to take a stand in anything. The local boys gawk at him for wearing white pants, because the "good guy" is seemingly oblivious to the fact that white pants invite stains. Again, Peckinpah's symbolism lacks subtlety. Keep an eye out, David is also the only person in the movie to wear glasses, the standard signal that a geek is present.

The true villain of the picture is small-mindedness and the tiny societal mobs that close ranks to protect their limited viewpoints. (Religion is thrown under the bus in the script as something neither side has much use for.) Peckinpah has a seething distaste for the xenophobia that causes the Cornish boys to look at David like a freak, and that carries over to how closed-off to them David also is. In this sense, the sin cuts both ways. The credo that David hears in the pub, in reference to the halfwit molester Henry (David Warner) that bothers the local girls, is "We take care of our own." In order to survive this situation, David must convert to their gospel. This, in a way, makes him a double to Charlie, but it also points out how Charlie is a double to the molester, and he must be treated the same for his sexual crimes. There is even a physical resemblance between the actors Henney and Warner.

Truly, Straw Dogs is one of Peckinpah's ugliest pictures, in both subject and look. The entire movie has a dirty, sickly beige pallor. The world is not painted in shades of gray, but a nauseous, muddy brown. While for a more idyllic story, something more romantic like John Ford's The Quiet Man, this wilderness could maybe be transformed into something beautiful, Straw Dogs is about the muck. Thus, the big battle is not something to cheer the way we do for the Duke when he bloodies his knuckles to win Maureen O'Hara. No, the fighting is ugly, too.

It's even uglier because it's so personal. It starts with the rape, which has a disquieting level of intimacy that comes from the fact that Amy and Charlie had once been lovers. It was first made personal prior to that, however, by the killing of Amy's cat, and all of the violence against humans is presaged by violence against animals. To show that Amy is a pawn stuck in the mean games men play, the attack on her is juxtaposed with scenes of David hunting, where first he impotently fumbles with his rifle, and then when he shoots a bird, he can't bring himself to take it home. Here, I have a harder time defending the filmmaker, and I would suggest that critics of the movie get it wrong in regards to whom Peckinpah is suggesting is asking for this brutality. Seemingly, Straw Dogs may be saying that David was asking for it.

Peckinpah certainly doesn't take David off the hook when he does finally take a stand. He chooses to do so for the wrong reasons. His machismo bubbles over, and he remains blind to the position he is putting his wife in when he asks her to defend Henry. Granted, neither of them know that Henry has harmed a girl, and David still doesn’t know what happened to Amy, but he still should see that something more is wrong. Straw Dogs practically becomes a horror movie at this point, the villagers coming to take away the lumbering monster, a smoky fog having settled all around. Rats are tossed through the windows like warning grenades, and the injuries David inflicts on the invaders are grotesque.

Within this climactic battle, I lose a little more of my resolve when it comes to defending Peckinpah. Up until this point, he has dealt with the aftermath of Amy's rape with a surprising insight into the effect it would have on her. Even within the fight, with her screams for David to give the men what they want, he makes us feel for her, flashing back to the painful incident. This makes it a little hard to take when David becomes a brute, when he essentially becomes Charlie, slapping Amy around and forcing her to submit to his will, and she goes along with it as if this were the man she always wanted him to be. The transformation is convincing for neither of them. If Amy has found any retribution in the end, we only believe it because she ends up having to finish what the men started and pick up a rifle herself. (Not unlike in High Noon, when the religious Grace Kelly character uses a pistol on one of the outlaws and gets a taste of why Gary Cooper does what he does.**) When she tells David she's okay, it's arguably because she has seen how fragile the male persona really is and how ridiculous and unfulfilling their games truly are.

David, on the other hand, it's hard to believe he's really changed at all. His final lines suggest that he thinks so, but I doubt many viewers are on his side. Maybe it's because he spent so much of the fight trying to defend the integrity of his glasses. Maybe it's because when it came down to the final blows, his wife had to come to his rescue. Or maybe it's because we know what is waiting for him back in town, that though he intends to deliver Henry safely home, Henry's got more coming to him. Whatever it is, he's surely kidding himself.

Which may be Sam Peckinpah's overall message, that we can't change who we are. Or, at least men can't, and women will forever be forced to suffer through their delusions and cruelties.

I am sure there will be many who will disagree with my reading of this motion picture, and I invite you to make an alternative case in the comments section. Truthfully, I think we often oversimplify Peckinpah when he is so clearly intending to provoke and even encouraging the debate. In a print interview that comes with the Straw Dogs DVD, Peckinpah expresses his lack of respect for critics who fail to take a strong stance on a movie. The director didn't expect wishy-washy reactions, as to ignore his provocations would make us no better than David, merely sitting back and watching it happen. Yet, he also wasn't willing to make it easy. He was too fascinated by the evil that men do to trade on easy symbolism--black pants on the bad guys, white on the good, if you will. The black and white of the chess game that David knows how to play and Amy is only just learning (again, she's a pawn in the games men play). If he hadn't wanted us to think about what we were watching and our own bloodlust--who doesn't want to see Charlie and the other guy get what's coming to them?--he would have made the plot a more straightforward "husband gets pushed around, wife gets attacked, husband finds out and takes revenge" scenario. At the end of Straw Dogs, as David rides off into the night, Amy looks at the carnage and says nothing, and we can only guess what she makes of it all. What we decide for her is likely the true meaning of the picture and Peckinpah's affirmation that in all of this, in this chess game, the pawn is really the Queen, and the Queen is the most important piece of all.

* A case could be made for the rat catcher being Peckinpah's proxy. After all, the character does later claim that he doesn't just exterminate rats, but he breeds them, as well. A dubious business practice from an untrustworthy fellow. Do the filmmaker's critiques serve to inspire new subjects, glorifying even as they denigrate?

** In another coincidental parallel to one of the movies I mentioned above, The Strangers, a film about two people in a house under siege, there is a recurring motif of a record stuck on the last groove. So, too, is there a stuck record when the chaos settles in Straw Dogs.

Note: This title is currently out-of-print from Criterion, but you still may be able to find it from secondary sellers.

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