The Cornwall of Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs is a realm of curdled, steroidal masculinity. The men of this remote southwest portion of the U.K. appear to come in three flavors: under-employed, consistently drunk ruffians, who’re all cock and rage; intellectuals, who’re as resentful as the ruffians beneath their white-collar gentility; and the feebly emasculated, as embodied by the village idiot, Henry (David Warner), who has a history of molesting children and who’s treated by the local girls as a pet. Henry embodies the extremity of desire that’s crippling the men of Cornwall, as he can’t have what he badly wants, and this stifling of urges symbolically castrates him until he explodes in a torrent of confusion, setting off the film’s primary conflict.
The women, of which there are three in the entire film, embody two types: the frustrated housewife and the “tart,” which overlap at least once. Amy (Susan George) is married to an American mathematician, David (Dustin Hoffman). Having grown up in Cornwall and presumably escaped it, Amy has brought David back to her father’s estate where he’s to work on a book. Dialogue, however, tells the audience that David’s running away from the chaos of early 1970s-era America, which is roiling from the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution, and too many riots and assassinations to count. Amy understandably resents this feeling of cowardice, while David resents her resentment. Their marriage is poisoned at the base, dying, and under the constant pressure of the savage local men, who drink Amy in so hungrily that their gaze is, itself, an act of sexual assault.
Mirroring Amy is Janice (Sally Thomsett), a teenager who dresses in short skirts, teasing Henry and flirting openly with David, who’s intrigued by her advances. When we first see Janice, she’s walking behind Amy in the town square, literalizing the idea that she’s following in her elder’s footsteps. In fact, Amy still dresses in a fashion that’s bound to be noticed by horny men who’re unsympathetic to the nuances of gendered subjugation. In Straw Dogs’s opening scene, Amy’s wearing a white T-shirt with no bra, her nipples captured by Peckinpah in a leering close-up. This is a reference to women’s liberation, but Amy’s also taunting the locals as a way of indirectly rubbing David’s nose in the business that he’s not tending to back home.
A spry dramatist could spend an hour presenting this thicket of backstory and subtext, though Peckinpah provides most of this information in five minutes. Straw Dogs is exhaustingly and maddeningly dense. Every object and line of dialogue is symbolic of the intangible tensions existing between primordial Male and Female. When David asks Amy if a chair is her daddy’s, she replies, with erotic haughtiness, that “every chair is daddy’s chair.” David’s blackboard represents his retreat from society and his marriage, as well as his insistence in living in his head rather than the world around him. A “man-trap,” a phallic, human-sized bear trap with metallic jaws that snap down on an intruder, is introduced for the obvious purpose of a payoff. David and Amy can’t even chew gum together without it turning into an essay on the precarious relationship between attraction and repulsion.
The man-trap is a metaphor for the film itself, as each scene further tightens a narrative spring; there are no moments of levity or unburdened connection throughout. Peckinpah’s aesthetic involves roaming cameras and kaleidoscopic editing that collapses multiple perspectives together, emphasizing emotional power over spatial consistency. The self-conscious thematic coding contrasts with the illusory, quasi-docudramatic looseness of the staging, as Peckinpah only emphasizes behavioral climaxes, quashing scenes together in ways that obscure chronology, favoring a relentless game of compare and contrast between the latent violence of David and Amy’s home and the actualized violence of Cornwall at large.
Straw Dogs suggests a mathematic equation as solved by a misanthropic anthropologist, as Peckinpah steadfastly prepares for Amy’s brutal and ambiguous rape by Charlie (Del Henney) and Norman (Ken Hutchison), two locals who enter the couple’s marriage crisis and explode it. The film is notorious for suggesting that Amy enjoys Charlie’s part in her assault. Charlie and Amy are exes, and Amy has teased Charlie with glimpses of her body throughout the narrative. But Peckinpah’s point of view isn’t simply misogynist; if it were, the emotional effect of this scene and of the film’s entire second half would be less upsetting. Peckinpah’s view of the men in Cornwall is pitiless, and his contempt extends to the intellectuals and the brutes. David isn’t a conventional dweeb who’s betrayed by Amy with a stud, as he possesses the same bitterness and hatred that’s infected the working-class locals, though he has the polish to better obscure it.
Those who insist that Peckinpah codes Amy as “asking for” rape are ignoring massive amounts of information and context. The first half of Straw Dogs follows Amy as she tries to get David’s attention, out of loneliness and self-doubt, which allows the film to critique intellectualized passive-aggression in a manner that recalls Contempt. David sees Amy as below his station, holding her at a painful distance that’s symbolized by his study where he makes a pretense of working on his book; he’s yet another man who’s yearned for the younger model-type only to chafe at said type’s acceptance, which complicates a fetish with human reality. Amy’s cat, which is frequently referenced, is mistreated by David as a way of funneling the hostility that he feels toward his wife, which leads to an audacious equivocal linking between David and Charlie and Norman. When Amy’s cat (her “pussy”) is killed, presumably by Norman, it reflects the wishes of David’s id. As Amy is raped, then, it’s correspondingly suggested that this action is an extension of David’s darkest fantasies of revenge and of cuckolded self-humiliation.
Straw Dogs’s infamous rape scene roots a female violation in the purview of the male psyche (every atrocity in the film is linked back to David, who’s truly “asking for it”), yet the sequence isn’t even this straightforward. Prior scenes have shown Amy enjoying a brief kinship with Charlie, Norman, and others, as these are people with whom she grew up. A moment of Amy with the gang, seen from David’s point of view from inside the house, suggests a desexualized camaraderie that’s betrayed by the rape. Luring David on a wild duck chase, Charlie doubles back to the house, slaps Amy hard, which Peckinpah captures in rapturous slow motion, forces her on the couch, tears her shirt, exposes her breasts, and strips her underwear.
At a certain point, Amy can be said to acquiesce, remembering lovemaking with David earlier in the film, which was initially shown in unsentimental terms, though the rape causes her to cast this subliminal flashback in a wistfulness that Peckinpah mirrors with pornographic soft lighting. Amy may be recreating in her mind a sex scene with David that she’s yearned for as an escape amid his clueless and selfish rebuttals. Amy then expresses this fantasy in actuality during a moment of existential desolation with Charlie, her emotional hunger irrationally dwarfing her physical subjugation. (It’s this implication, which is deeply disturbing and politically incorrect, that truly angers people about this film.) Lonely and ignored and reduced to an object by every male in Cornwall, Amy begs for a pitiful scrap of affection to be offered on Charlie’s terms, yet even this qualified touch, this entirely male-centric debasement, is betrayed when Norman mounts her from behind, definitively stripping Amy of any pretense of human solidarity.
The most telling element of Amy’s treatment resides in how little she matters to the men. Charlie and Norman rape Amy and come to work at her and David’s property the next day as if nothing has happened, which is as disgusting as any violence we see. When Charlie and his goons storm the estate at the end of the film, so as to take Henry and kill him for his involvement with Janice, David battles them with no concern for Amy’s mental or emotional state or whereabouts. She wanders the house, while David enters his figurative study, enacting the physical manifestation of his interior violence. David doesn’t care about Amy until she’s endangered by Norman and calls to Charlie for help, wounding David’s ego.
The parallel sexual dramas cancel one another out, giving the men the self-justification they need to kill each another, leaving the women discarded at the sidelines. David unknowingly defends a killer, as Henry was provoked by Janice into strangling her. Charlie and Norman don’t know this either, though they attempt to defend Janice’s honor with a straight face after assaulting Amy. Peckinpah’s aware of these ironies and in control of them, though they’re impenetrable and suffocating, as this film’s brilliance is inseparable from its rigidity. The prolonged climax clears the air, in a manner reminiscent of Taxi Driver’s conclusion, annihilating the imaginary divide between macro and micro aggression. The wars of America are your and my wars, as are the timeless wars of mutual gender hatred. Yet the point of this film is that there isn’t a point. We exit these nesting domestic tragedies with nothing.
This new digital 4K transfer, from the original 35 mm negative, offers a great improvement over prior editions in terms of color, texture, and clarity. The color upgrade is particularly apparent in the flesh tones, which sport a new richness and variety of hues, and in the vivid browns, greens, and grays of the landscapes and interior settings. The conventional beauty of Straw Dogs, on an aesthetic level, has never been so apparent, offering another counterpoint to the bloodshed and pervading hopelessness. A few brief passages are grainier than others, but this is nitpicking, as the image is generally robust, healthy, and gorgeous. The unnervingly precise monaural soundtrack also clarifies the intricate aural links between sequences, offering a revelatory improvement over the muddiness of prior tracks, while sharpening the small sound effects that lend the violent set pieces their ferocious tactility.
This supplements package shrewdly complements archive featurettes with new pieces that further interrogate a difficult film’s thorny reputation. For instance, Stephen Prince’s 2005 audio commentary intriguingly contrasts with a new interview with film scholar Linda Williams, representing the polarities of the Straw Dogs debate. The commentary mines every image of the film for symbols, sometimes over-eagerly (I’m still not sold on the use of mirrors in a bedroom scene as a "Brechtian" effect), defending Sam Peckinpah as an ironist rather than a misogynist. Williams, meanwhile, documents every instance of body language that frames Susan George’s character as a tease or a victim, passionately and persuasively arguing that Straw Dogs is a major yet profoundly sexist work. What Prince and Williams cumulatively convey is that this film is all of these things, illuminating its unshakable moral confusion.
Michael Sragow’s great new interview with filmmaker Roger Spottiswoode, who served as one of Straw Dogs’s editors, provides an unusual glimpse at the relationship between directors and editors. Peckinpah shot a terrifying amount of coverage, per his wont, gradually instructing his editors to hone the footage down with vague direction that invited them into the process and speaks to his own intensely instinctual work methods. These instincts are less flatteringly documented by vintage interviews with George and producer Daniel Melnick, which allude to Peckinpah’s cruel treatment of the former as an eerie, un-coincidental parallel to how Amy is treated by David in the film. Another archive interview, with Peckinpah biographer Garner Simmons, discusses Peckinpah’s awareness of his resentful manipulations and desire to see them unsentimentally aired to the public.
"Mantrap: Straw Dogs – The Final Cut" offers a straightforward portrait of the film’s making, while Sam Peckinpah: Man of Iron is a full-length documentary that traces Peckinpah’s life back to its familial roots, elaborating on how those influences might’ve seasoned his art. Much of the information covered in these films will be familiar to Peckinpah’s acolytes, yet it’s nice to have them collected in one place. Rounding out this terrific package are TV spots and trailers, a booklet featuring an interview with Peckinpah and an essay by scholar and critic Joshua Clover, and more behind-the-scenes footage.
One of the most ambiguous, neurotic, and disturbing of all American films receives a revelatory new restoration, with supplements that ably grapple with its chaos.