Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 2, 2011)
A tale of two brutal movies: in 1971, we got two flicks that took place in England and strongly featured rape as a major component. Both came from famous directors and elicited a strong reaction.
However, these cases differ when we examine their legacies. On one hand, Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange has become recognized as a classic, and it stands among the director’s best work. (Personally, I think it’s his only totally successful film.) On the other hand, Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs largely became “buried”, as it seems viewed negatively by many movie partisans. (A 2011 remake seems likely to give it renewed attention, though.)
While I don’t think Dogs ranks alongside Clockwork, but the movie doesn’t deserve its one-time lack of recognition. A rough and cold film, Dogs doesn’t deliver the visceral creativity of Kubrick’s masterwork, but it accomplishes its goals nonetheless.
At the start of Dogs, we meet American mathematician David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) and his young English wife Amy (Susan George). The pair recently relocated to the Cornish village in which she grew up, and we see their interactions with locals. We quickly meet an old lover of Amy’s, Charlie Venner (Del Henney), who seems intent on rekindling that sexual fling. We also encounter local mean drunk Tom Hedden (Peter Vaughn) and other low-lifes like Cawsey (Jim Norton) and Scutt (Ken Hutchison), the guys who’re working on the Sumner home. Other characters include simple-minded town perv Henry Niles (David Warner) and Hedden’s precociously sexy daughter Janice (Sally Thomsett); the latter demonstrates a clear crush on David.
Multiple tensions appear evident via these different folks, with an emphasis on the attitudes between David and Amy. The two seem detached and don’t connect very well, and their move to her childhood home doesn’t appear to help. If anything, their arrival in England looks like it increased problems, as the locals don’t cotton to the intrusion of the seemingly arrogant American.
The first half of the film follows the slow building of tension, with an emphasis on matters between David and Amy as well as between the houseworkers – primarily Venner, Scutt and Cawsey – and the couple. We observe the sexual strain as the workmen ogle Amy and she doesn’t totally rebuke the attention.
The nastiness escalates when Amy finds her cat dead in her closet. She feels one of the workmen did it and wants David to confront them. However, the passive-aggressive mathematician doesn’t follow through as promised, and he ends up going on a duck-hunting trip with the guys.
This event essentially seems to be a pretense to get him away from home and leave Amy alone. Venner rapes her, and Scutt joins in after he finishes. Clearly, this negatively affects Amy, though she doesn’t tell David what happened. From there, matters become even nastier, as events transpire to lead to a battle between David and the others during the film’s climax.
Straw Dogs seems to be a polarizing movie. Some leap to its defense, while others denounce it as fascist, misogynistic, and pro-violence. While I can see how some might reach those conclusions, I can’t say I agree with them. The alleged misogyny seems to miss the point most significantly. Indeed, Amy comes across as the closest thing to a sympathetic character in the whole thing. Though we should embrace David as our hero, he maintains a fairly intense level of passive aggression throughout the film. He often seems selfish and self-centered, and he doesn’t appear to understand how his actions negatively affect others.
Virtually every character in Dogs has multiple flaws, and the local men certainly come across as problematic. Represented by Venner and the others, they seem crass and crude. Again, this leaves Amy as the most sympathetic personality. While she clearly displays some of her own issues, she feels more likable and less problematic when compared to the others.
Much of the controversy surrounding Dogs stems from the rape scene. This doesn’t occur simply because a rape occurs. No, Dogs provoked outrage because of Amy’s reaction. When Venner takes her, she initially resists but then she seems to enjoy the experience. No such apparent pleasure greets Scutt’s attack on her, but what we perceive as Amy’s acceptance of Venner’s violation clearly doesn’t sit well with many people.
As I see it, though, the reality seems more complicated. For one, Amy and Venner had a history as lovers, and the pair clearly flirted earlier in the movie. In addition, we see that Amy’s love life with David appears less than satisfying. It appears plausible that she’s willing to accept this seemingly unwanted intrusion because she really did want it.
That doesn’t mean that Amy wanted to be raped, but the film doesn’t depict Venner’s actions in a terribly aggressive way; he’s more forceful than violent. Unlike Scutt and the others, Venner presents a more complicated character and isn’t just a cartoon goon. This comes to bear more fully in the film’s climax, when we learn more of his attitudes toward Amy and vice versa.
This issue offers something of a minefield, and I recognize that it’s a thin line between condemning and condoning the behavior depicted in the film. However, I think it seems clear that Peckinpah doesn’t obviously perpetuate the concept that women like to be raped. Does Amy get into the action with Venner? Yes, it appears so. But even though Amy does appear to take pleasure from Venner’s actions, the situation seems more complicated than Dogs’ foes would make you believe.
Peckinpah makes things muddier due to the way he features Amy throughout the film. For our first glimpse of her, the camera focuses on a close-up of her braless chest with nipples poking through her shirt. In subsequent scenes, Peckinpah photographs her in similarly leering ways, but this doesn’t come across like gratuitous T&A. Instead, the camerawork involves the viewer and makes us complicit in the nastiness. This makes it that much more difficult for viewers to distance themselves from the action, which in turn means that the film possesses more of a punch than some might like.
Or you could just try to turn off your brain and watch Straw Dogs as something of an action flick. The final act comes across almost like a bloodier version of Home Alone as David defends his abode. (Ironically, Dogs actually depicts less violence than the cartoonish Alone, which packs a tremendous amount of mayhem into its assault.) Straw Dogs presents no easy answers or simplistic notions during its journey into violence. It doesn’t sit well with many viewers, but unlike amateurish fare such as The Last House On the Left, Dogs actually goes somewhere and has something to say.