One of the most controversial films of all-time!
Screenplay By: Sam Peckinpah & David Zelag Goodman
Directed By: Sam Peckinpah
Movies can exist to tell a story, they can exist to present a message, they can exist to ask questions, movies can exist for any number of reasons. Straw Dogs tells a story but it exists to ask questions. The questions it asks aren’t questions that society is okay with and thus Straw Dogs has been met with a lot of derision over the years. Straw Dogs is A History Of Violence before A History Of Violence ever existed, although I do prefer A History Of Violence to Straw Dogs for a variety of reasons. Straw Dogs asks questions about violence, the nature of humanity, sex, our treatment of one another and it never gives you the answers to any of the questions it asks.
Straw Dogs spends the first forty or so minutes establishing the characters and the world they inhabit. While this may seem tedious and unnecessary in the minds of some, I think it is highly essential. In these opening moment of establishment Peckinpah creates a lecherous and dangerous atmosphere. Even though nothing is happening of note, depending on your feelings towards cats, during these opening moments a great tension is built up. Straw Dogs is a building movie, the movies builds and builds on a palpable tension until it reaches the breaking point for the audience and its characters at the same time. After the breaking point is reached, all that is left is the release of violence we want, but even in that release Peckinpah questions our motives in watching the film.
There isn’t a good or bad character in Straw Dogs, it is an amoral movie of the highest order. Actions are presented to us without any label attached to them, the camera never stops to paint someone as doing something evil or something good. They are living their lives, committing acts, etc., and it is up to the viewer to judge those actions for themselves. Take the death of the cat for instance, it is a shocking moment, but the movie itself never labels it as a bad thing. One group of characters doesn’t care while another does and we are left in the middle to decide for ourselves what that act entails.
The elephant in the middle of the room is of course, the rape scene. This is the scene that more than any other part of the movie turns people off. I can see why it would turn a lot of people off, especially women, but I can’t agree with the reasons people give for it turning them off. From a pure story standpoint it is perfectly placed, it is the turning point of the movie and for David, even if he doesn’t realize it. It is filmed in such a way that any number of interpretations can be taken from it. For instance does Amy start to enjoy what is happening to her or does she associate her rapist visually with her husband in an attempt to disassociate herself from the terror of what is happening to her? It’s also obvious that she does have feelings for Charlie, and while she doesn’t want to have sex with him, it is possible that once it has started those feelings get the best of her, only to be turned into horror again when Scutt gets involved and Charlie holds her against her will. It is rape no matter how you slice it, but it is still an event that is open for a myriad of interpretations.
Personally I view the rape and the ensuing violence as one and the same, they are Peckinpah’s way of blasting violence and abhorrent acts into the face of the audience. He films the rape to be a roller coaster of emotion, first there is horror, then acceptance, then horror again followed by a feeling of helplessness. He presents various emotions to play off of the emotions we impart on our entertainment as well as on our idea of what is acceptable in film. When Amy’s rape is horrific it clearly isn’t acceptable in our eyes, but when it appears she has accepted it then our eyes do the same. The violence is given to us because that is what we want, we intend for the violence at the end to be our cathartic release from the atrocities we have seen. But there isn’t anything cathartic about it, Peckinpah gives us raw violence and instead of feeling a release we are left feeling dirtier.
It may be a controversial film, but Straw Dogs is a great film. Some people still aren’t willing to accept any study of violence and the human nature in film, and for that reason Straw Dogs will always have a great share of detractors. I happen to love the film and consider it essential viewing for any movie goer. And hey, I didn’t even know Susan George was really British, damn you Dirty Mary Crazy Larry!