Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Straw Dogs (1971)

Straw Dogs (1971), directed by Sam Peckinpah, is regarded as one of the movies at the forefront of sub-genre known as "Savage Cinema" or "Backwoods Brutality." In films such as Deliverance, The Last House on the Left, I Spit on Your Grave and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, middle-class city or suburban-dwellers find themselves at the mercy of dangerous locals in backwoods, rural America and in numerous cases would have to abandon their ideas of morality and conduct extreme acts of violence to survive or avenge wrongs done against them.

Without question, this type of movie was violent, often graphically so, and designed create discomfort among the viewers, forcing them to confront the effect on violence on people. So why the rise of Savage Cinema? Filmmakers were enjoying newer freedoms and less restrictions as they applied their craft. New Hollywood was in full swing at this time with daring and gifted writers and directors challenging the conventions of traditional movie-making. This period, the late 60s and early 70s, was also one of great turmoil. The Vietnam War was still waging, and unlike previous conflicts, television was able to broadcast horrifying images into the homes of the American public. Race riots were occurring in several cities, the counter-cultural movement was alive, and Americans had new reason to question their leadership after the Watergate Scandal. This was a time of great political ans social instability and unease, and the films of the time reflected that.

Unlike the aforementioned titles, Straw Dogs is set in the countryside of England, specifically Cornwall, although it does center on an American. As the film opens, David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) is a mathematician who has left the United States to live with his wife Amy (Susan George) in her hometown of Wakley. David, who left the U.S. to get away from its political and social turmoil, finds himself an outsider in his new home, unable and unwillingly to stand up for himself when the locals start making trouble, much to the disappointment of Amy. Things grow tense, particularly with Charlie Venner (Del Henney), Amy's former lover who is among the men hired to fix the Sumners' garage, and the locals become increasingly intrusive.

Straw Dogs is a slow-burn thriller. At first, it appears to be more of drama about fitting in  and adapting to a different culture, but the signs this is going to get ugly creep in, become more obvious, and become too hard to ignore until it eventually erupts in an explosion of drunken vigilantism, mob justice, machismo, and home defense. The final twenty minutes, in which David holds off a group of men trying to get into house to get at the village idiot (David Warner) for accidentally killing a girl (which David is not aware of), are downright brutal and intense as David becomes increasingly desperate, setting traps and resorting to more violent measures.

It's tempting to label Straw Dogs as pro-violence, or at least a glorification of it. After all, we witness David go from a meek, almost cowardly wimp who gets pushed to far and decides to make a stand, and it must be said there is a certain catharsis or release once David finally takes action. However, a number of points must be considered.

David's big stand is forced by his refusal to give up someone who has killed (I'm reminded a bit of the gang of The Wild Bunch pulling off a deadly robbery only to discover their prize is a bag of washers). After all, the residents of this town have a right to see justice served and the guilty punished. But this point is more nuanced, however. David takes Henry Niles into his home because he hit him with his car and sees it as a point of honor and basic dignity to see to it he gets medical attention. On a more thematic level, it is the civilized David fights back on behalf of law, order, and due process against a bunch of drunks looking to take the law into their own hands. David's action, by contrast, are less calculated revenge and more desperate self-defense in which quick thinking proves to outmatch brute force.

When the climax is over and the attackers are all dead, we get a good look at David. He began the sequence dressed in a nice suit that is now ragged, disheveled, and covered with blood. One of the lens of his glasses is cracked. He drives Henry Niles back to town, and Niles tells him he doesn't know his way home, to which David replies he doesn't either. David's descent into violence has marked him.The movie ends with him unsure of who he is and where he belongs.

Ultimately, that final point is at the heart of many of these films in savage cinema. Traditional ideas of law and order break down, and the characters' understanding of right, wrong, themselves, and each other is shattered. Like other entries in this genre, Straw Dogs can be difficult and challenging to watch at time; it does not shy away from bloodshed, dismemberment, cruelty, or sexual violence, but at its center, it is about how pervasive violence is in society and how people respond to and commit. It is strongly acted, powerfully directed, and tightly written and remains engaging throughout its running length.

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