Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Straw Dogs (1971)

Controversies about horror movies accused of going too far are hardly new, and in the early 70s there were a number of celebrated cases. Including this one.

Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs really is a very disturbing movie. It’s not the level of violence that is disturbing. It’s not even the notorious rape scene. What’s disturbing is the way Peckinpah deliberately provokes a response in the viewer, and then challenges us to consider the nature of our response. You really need to set aside preconceptions when watching this one. If you assume that this is an ode to violence by a man obsessed with macho fantasies of masculinity you’re likely to completely misunderstand the film. He was certainly fascinated by violence and men’s reaction to violence (and by the response of women to violent men which is also a major theme of his superb 1972 movie The Getaway) but I don’t think it’s either fair or safe to presume that he therefore approved of this violence. Similarly, if you assume the rape scene is going to show you what so many critics of the film claim it shows, a woman being raped who starts to enjoy the experience, and that this reflects Peckinpah’s own simplistic and misogynistic views, then again I think you’re liable to be misled about the movie’s intentions. That scene is unpleasant and confronting, but it’s also much more complex and ambiguous than you may have been led to believe. Her relationship to the man involved is complicated by a previous history and her feelings about him are contradictory and confused, as are her feelings for her husband.

But then there is not a single event, a single character, or a single situation in the movie that is simple and unambiguous. David (Dustin Hoffman) is not a mild-mannered peaceable mathematician driven to extreme violence as an act of revenge for the rape of his wife. Right from the start he’s a seething mass of barely suppressed anger and hostility and self-loathing, and he doesn’t even know his wife was raped. He is not the hero of a western, driven to violence to protect his family, and here Peckinpah uses the fact that he was best known as a director of westerns to play more games with his audience.

The event that triggers the outburst of bloodshed is even more unsettling than the rape in some ways. In this case it’s not only the audience who are likely to be uncertain as to the exact nature of the situation – the characters in the movie all react to this event, but in their various ways they all misinterpret what is going on. The villagers claim to be hunting down Henry Niles (David Warner), a pervert with a fixation on young girls who was seen leading the innocent young daughter of the town drunk to her doom, but the young woman in question is neither a child nor is she innocent. Henry is retarded and is more of a child than she is. And in this case she is the predator and Henry is her victim. But again Peckinpah doesn’t make it easy for us. We really have no idea what her motivations or her intentions were. Was she actually intending to have sex with him? Was she simply taunting him? Was it a twisted revenge on David, who had spurned her advances? Was she playing a game that got out of hand? And, in another irony, her death is in fact an accident. In this scene and in the rape scene I don’t believe that Peckinpah was (as some critics have suggested) painting all women as sluts who prey on men, or that he was suggesting that the women concerned are “asking for it.” I think he’s simply trying to make his audience as uncomfortable as possible, forcing them to confront things they’d rather not confront, to see things that they’d like to believe are straightforward as being in reality anything but clear-cut, and to consider whether any of us can really claim to be innocent.

The relationship between David and his wife Amy is, as pointed out, quite bizarre (and I have to say at this point that although Dustin Hoffman was the darling of the critics at the time for my money he’s comprehensively out-acted by Susan George as Amy). They appear to have nothing in common, and to despise one another. I couldn’t help feeling that for the nerdy and insecure David having a beautiful young wife was essentially a status symbol, a sign that despite that nerdiness and insecurity he was a male with power (a high-status job and money), and that she gave him status with other males. His decision to continue employing a bunch of yokels who harass and ogle his wife could be interpreted as an act of aggression on his part, asserting his dominant social position – that he was rubbing their noses in the fact that this beautiful young woman belonged to him. The men in this movie mostly treat women as possessions to be fought over, and Peckinpah seems to be making sure we notice that. It’s yet another provocative element in this deeply unsettling but audacious and technically brilliant film.

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