In his first foray outside the western, maverick director Sam Peckinpah took to the Cornish countryside for his 1972 powder keg Straw Dogs, situating his story of unbridled primal masculinity amid a damp, harsh landscape of rolling hills, scraggly earth and overcast sky. The dreary, muted setting perfectly suits the film’s bleak vision of mankind’s brutal nature, even as it provides a striking contrast to the tale’s incendiary sexual and physical explosiveness. Sitting through Peckinpah’s controversial classic is not unlike watching a lit fuse make its slow, inexorable way toward its combustible destination—the taut build-up is as shocking and vicious as its fiery conclusion is inevitable.
Mathematician David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) and his wife Amy (Susan George) have moved back to Amy’s childhood hometown, but the quaint village provides the couple with little tranquility. David contends that they’ve abandoned the States because of the seclusion their new home affords, but Amy knows that the real motivation was fear and lack of conviction—in a 1971 America mired in anti-Vietnam protests, David “wouldn’t take a stand” on the debate, choosing instead to flee for quieter pastures. David is nebbish, more interested in the equations on his blackboard than his nubile wife. For Peckinpah, he is the epitome of a neutered man, bereft of the sexuality, courage and physical stature that the film’s rugged townsmen—including Charlie Venner (Del Henney), a former boyfriend of Amy’s—possess. Venner and his friends have been employed to repair David’s house, but they have their eyes set on Amy, who claims to dislike their leering but nonetheless encourages attention by gallivanting around town bra-less and around her house topless. Sensing his weakness, the locals slowly begin to intimidate David, who foolishly and arrogantly believes that his money and education will somehow earn him their respect.
As the cowardly academic, Hoffman employs a series of fidgety gestures and darting glances that convey his character’s feeble attempts to project strength and confidence, and turns him into an unctuous twerp that’s only barely sympathetic; the primary reason we don’t completely loathe David is the revulsion elicited by the film’s other characters. One can almost feel a cynical Peckinpah’s smirking behind the camera as he offers these repulsive characters for our consumption, every frame exuding his disdain for people (and movies) that steadfastly turn a blind eye to the sadism and violence endemic to human existence. As in much of his work (The Wild Bunch, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia), Peckinpah depicts a world in which men must act like men—brave, ferocious, willing to do life’s dirty work—if they wish to survive, even if the price one pays for such actions is exorbitant. Sentimentality is a crutch for the weak, and Straw Dogs serves as the director’s blistering treatise on man’s inherent animalistic impulses.
This preoccupation with humanity’s beastliness is part of the thematic realm of Stanley Kubrick, whose films are rooted in a fundamental belief that man cannot escape or overcome his primitive instincts. Yet while Kubrick’s cinema was characterized by stylized sterility and abstraction, Peckinpah’s efforts are emblazoned with the uncontrollable fury and passion of their notoriously hard-drinking, hard-living author. Straw Dogs’ most infamous scene involves Amy’s rape at the hands of both Charlie and one of his cohorts, and only a director like Peckinpah would have the gall to show Amy as not only somewhat responsible for this crime but also partially enjoying the act of violence. The scene has long been condemned as proof of Peckinpah’s misogyny, and yet it actually fits snuggly into the film’s statement on the foulness and futility of violence. In a climactic act of manly territorial pride, Hoffman’s David must take up arms and protect his “castle” from a group of invading marauders, but his eventual success is hardly a victory—the siege’s aftermath finds David abandoning Amy in the corpse-strewn house and driving off into the cold night with John Niles (a disturbed man-child who is, like Lenny from Of Mice and Men, guilty of an unintentional murder). David may be reborn as a man through this gruesome bloodshed, but as Straw Dogs makes clear, the consequences of enduring such a violent rite of passage is ultimately suffering and alienation.