Review of Straw Dogs (1971)
Seen in 2018.
An American mathematician has a grant to model stellar evolution. Pursuing this work in a Cornwall country house, he is distracted by his unhappy marriage and the encroachment of rude local labourers who are building him a garage and eventually lay siege to the house.
The basic setup is distasteful: The pretty wife exposing herself to the labourers, the camera’s male gaze upon her in the resulting gang rape scene, and the fantasy of the bourgeois intellectual killing all of his rivals and subduing his wife. It’s transparently a power fantasy for a paranoid middle class. In the final scene, Dustin Hoffman’s mathematician David says he can’t find his way home, but he has clearly tapped into some magical primal masculine current that cancels out his earlier shyness and clumsiness. Yuck.
It’s worth watching because, for all its bad ideas, it’s relatively well told. The title, surprisingly, comes from Dao De Jing (ca. 400 BCE). The framing and editing is quite intelligent. The attackers are individually characterized, not a homogeneous mass, and not simply evil. Likewise, Amy is not childlike or just a flirt, and David is not innocent: He tortures the cat, monopolizes the room heater, bullies the preacher etc. As professor Stephen Prince points out in his apologia on the Blu-Ray, David’s face looks robotic as he uses the excuse of the siege to order Amy around. They’re all caught up in destructive games of dominance, where the violence is neither casual nor celebratory, but it is aestheticized by slow motion.
The hour of build-up in an otherwise very fast-moving film is appropriate and the rape, although prurient, does carry a significant psychological weight for its victim, which Peckinpah illustrates through the film’s only point-of-view shots (Amy’s) and rapidly intercut flashbacks (Peckinpah’s “flash cutting”) at a church social that, as Prince says, comes to resemble a Satanic mass.