Lowdown: What would it take to make an average man into a raging killing machine?
The first time I watched Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs, a 1971 film starring a youngish Dustin Hoffman, I was a young teenager. My sister was in a Dustin Hoffman mood, so she rented The Graduate and Straw Dogs, and we watched them in sequence over a weekend night. I was quite impressed with The Graduate, and both me and my sister really enjoyed it, so I didn't expect much from Straw Dogs; however, I was even more impressed by Dogs. It was one of those films that really made an impression on me; although up until now I remembered it mostly as a member of the same category as John Carpenter's original Assault on Precinct 13 for its siege like scenes, I was clever enough to recognize that I probably didn't take as much out of the film as I should. I therefore decided it's time to revisit this film.
Having just watched it again, the first thing I need to say about this film is that it is pretty disturbing. This is definitely not a film for the faint hearted, nor a film for the young teenager I was when I first watched it. For reasons why look no further than the very detailed gang rape scene featured in the film; but it's not only that: It's a story of low morals where violence is presented as the ultimate cure.
Introductions aside, let's get on with the film. The film follows Dustin Hoffman, who portrays a geeky American mathematician married to an attractive English wife, who retires to his wife's remote village in England in order to work on his mathematical breakthrough for a year.
Signs of malice are evident from the word go, with the local villagers giving you every possible impression of them being inconsiderate of their fellow human beings (those that are foreign to them, such as well educated Americans), drunk, corrupt, and dangerously lacking control over their sexual drives. The contrast between their supposed manhood and Hoffman's geekiness is emphasized by Peckinpah with Hoffman's glasses, gestures, politeness, and inability to drive his sports car - he actually let's his wife drive for him.
In the dog eat dog world that is this English village which serves as a metaphor for the world entire, the young guys at the village soon start taking advantage of Hoffman. They start by teasing him and mocking him, and he does his best to avoid confrontation; they move on to hanging his cat to death in his bedroom closet, and he still accepts it. And on and on the teasing goes (remember the rape I mentioned earlier), until - eventually - Hoffman becomes the man Packinpah has always believed him to be, becoming a cold blooded killing machine.
What Peckinpah is trying to tell us in this film is quite disturbing. He is saying that in this world of ours it is only the strong that prevails, and if the civilized side of humanity wants to be the one that is in control then it must use violence to establish its inherit superiority over the mob. Basically, his message is pretty similar to Don Siegel's one in Dirty Harry, or to George W Bush's one in his invasion to Iraq (assuming that was not made because of minor reasons such as controlling oil reservoirs). Discussions and negotiations do not belong in Peckinpah's world, where such gestures can only be interpreted by the other side as signs of weakness that would ultimately be exploited and could easily lead to our ruin.
Peckinpah's extremely disturbing message is delivered in a way that is bound to take you off balance. It's not only the plot: through crafty editing and cinematography that is designed to take the viewer psychologically off balance (for example, by slightly tilting the camera), Peckinpah makes a lasting impression. As I said, this is not a film for the faint hearted.
For the record, I do not agree with Peckinpah's point of view; I think it is overly pessimistic. That said, I cannot avoid remembering cases from my own personal history where I was facing similar (although significantly less extreme) scenarios to what Hoffman was facing in this film. The time I served in the army was the time in which I was first exposed to people of inherently different backgrounds to mine, people that didn't think the way I thought even though we were both in the same army and supposedly acting for the same cause; and often enough you would get this gang of people that would abuse your good will and constantly tease you to get their way and prove their superiority, and I have to admit I was not able to find the cure for handling them. Usually I just ignored them, the way Hoffman does (early in the film).
I guess what I am trying to say is that as much as I disagree with Peckinpah on the proper methodology for addressing the people that try to enforce themselves upon you/us, I do think that he did a good job in raising the issue and presenting it in such an extreme way where discussing it become a necessity.
Best scene: All the village congregates together for a yearly meeting run by the local priest, with all the disturbing facades of its population exposed in a myriad of disturbing ways. Religion and ethics are all mixed in together, and Peckinpah's opinion on the role of religion is made very clear.
Picture quality: To say it's bad is an understatement. I believe there is Criterion version of this DVD, and I hope that version is better, because this one is simply a disaster. It looks as though the DVD was mastered from some cinema film stock.
Sound quality: I understand that older films featured a mono soundtrack, but this one is a disgrace for the studio. It is so bad that much of the dialog is unintelligible, and with the lack of subtitles on this DVD version you just have to figure things out by their context.
Overall: 5 stars for the excellently delivered message. Even though I disagree with it, I cannot ignore it. 1 star for the DVD presentation.