PCA Retro Review: Straw Dogs (1971)

PCA reminds you the the world’s best movies are not in the new release section at Blockbuster!

Straw Dogs (1971) – Sam Peckinpah’s psychological thriller Straw Dogs has a notorious reputation for its violence, its graphic rape scene and for being banned in the UK for decades.  However, while the film remains to be a decent film today, the impact of its reputation doesn’t hold up in today’s world of ultra violent films, and even pales in comparisons to many of the grind house films of the 1970’s.  Instead, what Straw Dogs does offer is an intense dramatic thriller with a fantastic cast lead by Dustin Hoffman and Susan George.

Dustin Hoffman plays David Sumner, a meek mathematician who relocates to the rural British countryside of his beautiful wife, Amy’s (Susan George), youth.  Inheriting the family farm, Sumner hires a group of roughians from the local village to build a garage, unknowingly hiring Amy’s former lover Charlie Venner (Del Henney).  In the weeks that follow, the hired men began to play head games and torment David and Amy who attempts t ignore their harassment in hopes that if they don’t let on that they are upset that the men will eventually get bored and go away.  However, as the harassment escalates the men kill the family cat and gang rapes Amy.  Finally when a village idiot accidentally kills the daughter of the cruel town patriarch Tom Hedden (Peter Vaughn), while fleeing from the town he is hit by David who brings him back to the house.  When Hedden, Venner and the other roughnecks that have been harassing the Sumners come to lynch the injured and scared killer, David Sumner is finally pushed to his limit and vows that nobody will be entering his house alive.  As the villagers lay siege to the Sumner farmhouse, David Sumner finally fights back and a body count begins to rise.

Dustin Hoffman as David Sumner in "Straw Dogs" (1971)

Once again Sam Peckinpah uses gritty violence combined with masterful performances to achieve another powerful film to his repertoire.  Playing out like Deliverance in the British Isles, Straw Dogs is a simple story about a man pushed to his limits.  However, the film was considered too violent for general audiences upon its release and was censored in the UK while it was released in its entirety in the US.  This made it a huge cult film in England where film fans scrambled to get bootlegs of uncut bootlegs from across the pond.  The British Film Board wouldn’t even allow a complete version of the film to be released in the UK until it became available on DVD in 2002.  Oddly, Straw Dogs is not nearly as brutal as A Clockwork Orange which was released the same year which was available in it’s entirety in the UK.  Although containing rape and multiple deaths, Peckinpah’s handling of the scenes are subtle and in as good as taste as could possibly be done.  Compared to many other films, Straw Dogs is fairly tame in tone.  However, Peckinpah’s imaginative camerawork and editing makes for some intense film making, especially during the scene at a church social where Susan George begins having flashbacks to her rape during the minister’s magic act.

Dustin Hoffman is at his very finest in the role of David Sumner.  A nervous, jerky little guy, Hoffman truly plays a stranger in a strange land where he does not only fit into the society but is not accepted by the local villagers.  A social introvert, his attempt at ignoring the rising conflict only increases the tension within the film.  However, once he finally cracks, Hoffman doesn’t suddenly turn into an action hero by any means.  As he defends his home he continues to stay in character as a jerky little mathematician who is way in over his head.  His performance is remains subtle, even when he is bashing a man’s head in like a melon, and his final line beautifully sums up the entire film.

Susan George gives a powerful performance as Hoffman's scared and suffering wife Amy Sumner whose ambiguous rape scene shocked viewers and British censors a like

Susan George gives possibly the most controversial performance of the film as Amy Sumner.  The rape scene is more controversial to many viewers not because of its existence but because it is unclear if Amy actually “wants it” or not.  As the tension between Amy and David begins to escalate, Amy seems to turn on her own husband by the middle of the film, giving herself over to her own people and no longer relating with the village outside eitherr.  As a result, she seems to actually connect with her first attacker, but when her second attacker suddenly violates her, the mood swiftly changes.  By the films end it is still uncertain just where Amy’s loyalties lay.

Straw Dogs also benefits from a superb cast of British character actors as well as location filming near Cornwall, England.  The little village and lush landscapes gives Straw Dogs an isolated feeling, making Dustin Hoffman seem even more alone.  Although it may not live up to its reputation of violence by today’s standards, Straw Dogs is still an excellent psychological thriller that should be rediscovered.

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