Straw Dogs turns on a woman’s rape, and one can’t blame pictures for depicting. But the film shows the woman, after some tart resistance, seeming to enjoy it, and this approaches the apex of what a delicate soul might call “problematic representation.” It’s fucked up. What’s more, the film offers this sequence, if not for our crooked pleasure, then as a means to meditate on male violence as something like an absolute truth, beyond good and evil.
Yet to name the movie misogynistic is to mistake the degree to which it is a movie that despises everyone, its viewers no less than its characters. It is, finally, the film’s ability to drag the audience into its theater of cruelty, like dragging dirty foil across a rotten tooth, that marks something fearsome about art’s capacities. It’s astonishing and it’s awful, and it has provoked some of the most passionate disagreement on record. Pauline Kael, rarely invoked for her political correctness, famously identified it as “the first American film that is a fascist work of art.”
The awfulness, as is often the case in a Peckinpah film, builds twice: the stuttering crescendo of physical violence that extends from the wife’s rape to the final slaughter is presaged by the initial arc of psychological combat. David Sumner and his British bride, Amy, are on leave from the sixties. He’s an American mathematician with feet of milquetoast; she floats in an erotic corona (America safely at a distance, she seems to have smuggled in a lesson or two from the sexual revolution under her sweater). They oscillate between playfulness and an increasingly unsublimated will to mess with each other, intensified by the sinister presence of some ogreish laborers. David and Amy have their charms, but the film throws itself (and us) into their escalating mutual cruelties.
It’s a mark of Susan George’s subtle, loaded performance that she keeps pace with Dustin Hoffman in the dramatic game of inviting us into the scenario and then shocking us back into our seats. If she can’t do much with the loud rhetoric of her costumes, she still renders Amy in a series of quietly mercurial mood shifts: Amy unfurls standard-issue feminine gestures of come hither and get bent with a kind of amused self-awareness, disguising even from herself the extent to which she lacks control. Meanwhile, the role of David strips Hoffman of his most charming actorly move, a sort of bemused fascination with his own shortcomings, since he must first deny and then best them. He has instead the unenviable task of being the least unappealing guy around, a negative virtue that might bury a lesser actor. Perhaps the most sympathetic nonhero of his era (one need think only of his tightrope pathos as Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy), here Hoffman is finally unable to make much of a claim on our sympathies at all. But of course, he’s not supposed to; sympathy is not part of Peckinpah’s palette.
Like his mathematician, Peckinpah had left America to get his work done, perhaps grasping that Hollywood wouldn’t tolerate a movie of such grimness. Even the famously beautiful Cornish countryside is shot with mean edges and dull colors, as dreary and inhospitable as can be; the town itself isn’t a community so much as a ragged abstraction of hostilities. Traditional humanistic virtues like complexity, beauty, and subtlety are for Peckinpah little more than niceties to be debrided with surgical vigor. The plot, such as it is, exists only to maneuver the major players toward the big showdown, where the filmmaker can lay bare the heart of the matter with his trademark slow-motion incisions into moments of violence. Straw Dogs was his first film outside the western genre, but this only makes his certainty about the depredations lurking under every man’s Sunday suit all the more powerful.
In a western, territorial violence is the big truth to which all others are merely ancillary. Domestic dramas—films that tender the promise of social realism—ask us instead to recognize our own lives, to mix some participation in with our spectatorship. This confusion of kind is perhaps at the root of what makes Straw Dogs so unsettling from the outset; we never know how to be, in relation to its story.
One might do best by calling it a war movie; Straw Dogs is unthinkable without recourse to Vietnam. Made in 1971, with little illusion left about the nature of America’s involvement in Southeast Asia, the movie namelessly invokes the conflict almost from the start. The campus troubles that Amy and the “uncommitted” David have left behind can be nothing other than antiwar protests. War, Peckinpah would have you know, comes not only to avowed combatants, or protesters, but to the uncommitted, to those who meant to opt out. Of course, this is the great trope of westerns as well, so often stocked with ex-sheriffs, army deserters, and gunslingers who’d meant to go straight before the plot caught up with them. Moving the story to the supposedly sedate and remote British countryside, to the current moment, changes nothing. You think you’re so modern, so civilized and assured, my American friend? You’ll find yourself a war before the sun rises.
And yet it is finally incomplete to reduce the film to a bloody disquisition on men, homes, and castles. It may be just that for the characters, but this reading doesn’t account for the powerful difficulties of watching the movie—the way that, like much great art, it challenges our very capacity to inhabit the world in the way to which we’re accustomed. At every turn, our participation is thrown in our faces like so much boiling oil. Peckinpah invites us to the theater of Susan George’s nubility; the price is the discovery that we just walked an aisle in a rapist’s shoes. Do we invest in Amy herself? Only if we like the taste of our own abjection, with a side of vitriol. Where, then—the remaining thugs? The village idiot, Henry Niles, himself little more than a plot device ex machina?
It’ll have to be David. And in some ways, this seems obvious: the movie may be the story of how the mathematician becomes a man. It’s this idea, that devolving into a fatal executor of the territorial imperative is the essence of being a man, that helped spur Kael’s pronouncement. But the fool who identifies with David is punished just the same. We are not invited to take pleasure in some triumphal climb into fascist dreams; Straw Dogs ends not in a utopia of power unshackled so much as in a swamp of the bloody and the bleeding. We may—let’s face it, we will, if we’re men—try to inhabit the convenient position of the intelligent, removed figure still allowed the pleasure of watching it all unfold. It’s a film designed exactly not to grant us this uncommitted complicity; that’s its move. We take up with David; we go down with him the same, discovering ourselves to be no different from the brutalitarians, finally lost in the fog-fouled landscape.
It’s a moment that reprises the end of The Graduate, through an awful mirror. Like Benjamin Braddock, David Sumner has overcome a film’s worth of hesitations to fully realize himself—as not a lover but a killer. And so he finds himself rolling away from the site of the climax not with his wife but side by side with Henry, the hulking, deadly innocent. When Henry declares, “I don’t know my way home,” David can only chime in, “That’s okay. I don’t either.” We are permitted one last ironic identification: they find themselves as we find ourselves, in the midst of what must once have seemed a brooding, romantic moor and is now just a place with no place for us.