Some thoughts on Straw Dogs (spoilers)

Discussion in 'Movies' started by Haggai, Jan 7, 2004.

  1. Haggai

    Haggai Producer

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    Just rented the Criterion DVD in the last couple of days, since it's going OOP and I wanted to see if it was worth getting. I've also wanted to see the movie for a while, since I like Peckinpah's The Getaway and I love The Wild Bunch.

    I have mixed feelings about Straw Dogs, not all that positive overall. I must say that Stephen Prince's commentary is brilliant, and he definitely highlighted some of the movie's strengths that I didn't quite recognize at first. Watching the movie, I understood that there really aren't any good guys, that Hoffman is going off the edge at the end and quite blatantly threatening/abusing his wife. Also, the drunk toughs do have a just case against Henry Niles (almost thought it was Harry Knowles when they first said his name--ha!), since he did kill Janice, although their vigilante brand of justice is reprehensible. I certainly understood one of the main points that Prince emphasized--contrary to most of the critical reaction, both positive and negative, the movie isn't really about a celebration of violence as an entry to manhood, a pacifist's development into a warrior, or anything like that.

    However, I have a problem with the whole "David is really the villain" point of view that Prince discusses, and Peckinpah basically confirmed in the correspondence excerpts on the bonus disc. I mean, these guys are responsible for raping his wife, and even though he doesn't know that, we certainly do. There's no doubt that those characters deserve some sort of punishment for what they did. It's not really that I think there has to be someone to "root for," but that it's just all terrible without quite placing everything in a context that I could relate to in some way.

    Really, I think my main problem stems from the rape scene. It doesn't seem to make sense, in terms of the characterizations, that she wouldn't have told David about it. I do think the first hour or so of the movie is very effective in setting the two of them up as a potentially happy couple, certainly an attractive one, with a tragic distance growing between them. You want them to succeed together, and sometimes it feels like they will, so it's quite strong when they drift apart. But this doesn't in any way make me feel that she wouldn't tell him about being attacked so brutally. The problems between them are certainly there, but when you get the cuts suggesting that she's flashing back to the rape when he's cuddling up to her, I just couldn't really buy it. The scale of the horror that she went through seems to overwhelm the problems they have in their marriage.

    And my chief problem with that rape scene is that it's just too much. It's so awful that it dwarfs the reactions through the rest of the movie, which are quite interesting. I agree with Prince's point on the commentary that the scene is not, contrary to some critical reactions, a celebration of the dreadful "all women secretly want to be raped" idea, but it's just such a nasty scene that I can see why people would react that way.

    I got to thinking about Rashomon, where a similar thing actually happens, at least in a couple of versions of the story--the bandit starts to rape the woman, who then succumbs to him and enjoys it. But since there's nothing graphic in it, there's nothing particularly shocking about how that idea is expressed. In Straw Dogs, I understood her change of heart in the middle of the attack to be stemming from her earlier relationship with Charlie and her dissatisfaction with David, and I think that works OK in a purely story related way. But the attack is already so vicious, with Charlie slapping her twice and ripping her clothes off, that it just seems like too much. Then the final part of the scene, where Charlie holds her down while Norman has a go at it, is obviously a horriffic way to end it. Would it maybe have worked if it had just been between Charlie and Amy, and considerably less graphic? In that case, I think there still could have been some way to make her quick flashbacks through the rest of the movie quite chilling and effective, and I think it also would have made a couple of story points more believable: not just the aforementioned point about her not telling David about it, but also her conflict in the final scenes about whether to go with Charlie or David. The last bit just doesn't seem credible when you know how horribly Charlie has attacked her himself, in addition to letting someone else rape her as well!

    I really enjoyed the interview with Susan George on the 2nd disc. It's a shame she didn't become a big A-list star, since her performance was very good, she was very sexy, and she was only 20/21 at the time! I was surprised to find out how young she was, since it seemed like it could have been the work of a more experienced actress, easily 5 or 10 years older than she was back then. This also becomes related to my feelings about the rape scene: did her role in this movie get her noticed as "the woman who was really good in Straw Dogs," or "the woman who was brutally raped in Straw Dogs"? The latter, obviously, even though she deserved to be known for the former.
     
  2. oscar_merkx

    oscar_merkx Lead Actor

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    I also bought this awhile ago.

    I thought the interview with Susan George was very informative indeed.

    The movie itself was certainly thought provoking, and from Hoffman's POV, he was certainly timid from the beginning.
    Slowly but surely he is almost driven to the brink of madness when the workers taunt him in every possible way.

    His decision to not give Henry Niles to the townspeople is courageous yet foolish as he becomes a vigilante himself and kills them so that he can defend his house.

    I am going to watch the movie again this time with the commentary !
     
  3. Haggai

    Haggai Producer

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    Thanks for chiming in, Oscar. I'm sure that others around these parts have seen this movie, so come on, people, throw me a frickin' bone here! [​IMG]
     
  4. Jack Briggs

    Jack Briggs Executive Producer

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    Weirdly, I was looking at my copy of this last weekend. As a film, it's very 1970s -- meaning there's an existential take on the morality of it all. In other words, we create our own morality, and in this case it's all skewed from the perspective of someone being driven to the brink of madness.

    The Straw Dogs is not so much a "great film" (far from it) as it is an important film.
     
  5. oscar_merkx

    oscar_merkx Lead Actor

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    It certainly seems that Dustin Hoffman played a major role in some of the best movies from the 1970s such as Little Big Man, Marathon Man, All the President's Men etc
     
  6. Andres Munoz

    Andres Munoz Cinematographer

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    I rented this a few weeks ago. Maybe I'm spoiled by all the graphic violence we get with movies nowadays because I just don't see what all the fuzz is all about with the violence in this movie.

    Yes, it is pretty violent but I don't think it was that graphic (I mean, they didn't play this in England for years beacause of this).

    The rape scene was disturbing to me in the sense that she actually looked like she started to enjoy it! Yes, the fact that she gets raped at all is disturbing enough but we've seen this many times before in movies, but her reaction is what made this scene stand out. I don't know what the director was going for there.

    The movie is realistic and I definately related to Dustin Hoffman's character (I think I would react in the same way he did) but the movie as a whole didn't pack the punch I was expecting after reading about all the controversy it created. I guess my expectations were too high?
     
  7. Daniel J.S.

    Daniel J.S. Stunt Coordinator

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    Although it's not my favorite, it is an important film with excellent performances by Hoffman and George. However, there are things about that irk me: for one thing, Peckinpah's depiction of women as sluts who are to blame when they are violated is reprehensible (the constant fetishization of George's shapely body only fuels the fire when discussing misogynistic imagery). When George seems to enjoy the first rape, the message seems to be that women need a good man to tell them what they want in terms of sex. Also, the film's assertion that pacifists are cowards who don't have the gumption to act on their desires to do violence is pretty suspect as is the idea that violence is so thrilling that having a female companion doesn't compare (as Hoffman realizes at the end). David might be intended to be the "villain," but the climax of the film comes across like an action setpiece and I get the feeling that Peckinpah found the violence exciting, a moment of cathartic pleasure. If Peckinpah meant us to be put off by Hoffman's sadistic acts, then he wasn't successful IMO.

    BTW, I believe George doesn't tell Hoffman about the rape because she believes it will do no good; she's already witnessed his feeble attempts to confront the gang about the death of her cat and has lost respect for him.
     
  8. Mike Graham

    Mike Graham Supporting Actor

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    I've had the old Anchor Bay disc for over two years now; I first caught the film late on TV one night, and it was definitely shocking. While the depictions of the violence isn't surprising like it was when the film was first released, seeing how the negative effect of violence has on the characters is wonderfully played out by the actors.
     
  9. Kevin M

    Kevin M Producer

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    I think this film has the power to shock even to this very day, the confusing mix of emotions and motivations in the violence knock the viewer off balance and really question the morals of anyone in the film as either good or bad...it depends on who your looking at at any given moment. After all the daughter was killed, the wife was raped, his house was attacked, Tom was a killer..etc. etc.

    Daniel, I don't think you understood the film, one way to see it is that she was raped, but even the escape from her loveless marriage that provided was enough...before she was truly raped.
    There are many ways to interpret the rape sequence and the conflicting emotions within it but that she was a "slut" and that she deserved it wasn't one that ever crossed my mind.

    It makes for strong conversations afterwards that's for sure..
     
  10. Daniel J.S.

    Daniel J.S. Stunt Coordinator

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    This has nothing to do with whether *I* think she was a slut, rather it was what seemed to be Peckinpah's attitude. Both female characters (Amy and the village girl) are presented as women who behave aggresively sexual and that leads to a bad outcome as if Peckinpah were punishing them for being sexual, for being "sluts". During the rape scene, I couldn't shake the feeling that Peckinpah on some level believes she was "asking for it (if she hadn't been such a tease, if she hadn't displayed her body, if she didn't have such a sexual appetite, it wouldn't have happened)". And I wouldn't go so far as to call their marriage "loveless"; strained definitely, what with David's frequent condescension towards her. However, there do appear to be *some* feelings between them (even if they are purely sexual; how often *does* Amy try to initiate sex with David in this film?). I have not "misunderstood" the film just because my views may not line up with what Peckinpah intended (remember, intent and effect are often very different).
     
  11. Kevin M

    Kevin M Producer

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    Yes, but your assertion that she was attacked because she was flirtatious/"she was a slut & deserved it" and therefore this is what Sam P. intended is incorrect, if you have the Criterion collection version of this film then I strongly suggest that you not only listen to the commentary but read the insert, it has Peckinpah's own words defending these very misinterpretations of the film back when it was originally released.

    For example, you realise that Dustin Hoffman's character was the real bad guy in the film, right?
     
  12. Daniel J.S.

    Daniel J.S. Stunt Coordinator

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    I've read the interview in the insert and I don't buy it. He can claim this or that until he's blue in the face about what he intended. What Peckinpah intended, or claims he intended, is of very minor importance; what is of importance is the images that are on the screen and how one perceives them. What I see presented are two females who attempt to transgress their culturally defined roles (long story short, the female has long been considered, by men of course, as belonging to the domestic sphere, submissive to their male partner) and are punished by the film-makers for it. Peckinpah, the screenwriters, et al. "put them in their place" as if to restore male dominance. If Stephen Prince reads it differently on the commentary, more power to him, but neither he, nor Peckinpah (nor I for that matter) are objectively "right".

    As for Hoffman being the bad guy in the film, it certainly comes across that way in the first two thirds of the film, where he is condescending to his wife and to the others in the village. Not to mention his refusal to stand up to the workers (remember the "pacifists are cowards" theme I mentioned?). As for when he turns violent, it can be interpreted that we are meant to be appalled by his actions; that Peckinpah is questioning traditional tropes of masculinity. However, we can also interpret that Hoffman is finally being a "man". That he is standing up for himself, that he has finally realized that he doesn't need a woman when he can be the big tough guy. The entire sequence is constructed like a big action set-piece with Hoffman taking on a team of villains. I wonder how many men unequivocally enjoy his sadistic acts and I wonder if Peckinpah knew they would react that way and played to that. It all seems to me like eating his cake and having it too: he fills the climax with crowd pleasing mayhem and then claims it's all meant to be a philosophical examination of violence and how it defines masculinity.
     
  13. Haggai

    Haggai Producer

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    I don't the sequence quite works that way. Before she appears to succumb to Charlie, he's already slapped her twice, REALLY hard, pulled her by the hair, and ripped her blouse apart, and she's clearly not enjoying it. It's already a terrible violation before it ends with him moving over and letting Norman in on it.
     
  14. Kevin M

    Kevin M Producer

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    Now I am sorry but I never once in all the years I have known this film ever read it that way, IMO it possibly reveals a lot more about your feelings than Sam Peckinpah's & that I am sure would please Sam to no end.
    Can it be read that way? Yes but he also offers not so subtle hints at his dislike for this kind of "Redneck" behavior even in the depiction of the brother & sister's relationship, mildly misogynistic and male dominated, I agree that these women (more so for Amy then Janice IMO) went against their "rolls" of the time and place but how you interpret this in the film as Peckinpah's way of agreeing with the violent behavior that it resulted in is beyond me.

    To each their own interpretation I suppose, but I flat out disagree with yours regarding this film & it's director.
     
  15. Kevin M

    Kevin M Producer

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    Nothing is B&W in this film, in fact none of the characters are particularly good or evil for any length of time in the film, & as far as David's violence being a positive statement about masculinity, look at how he portrays all the other supposedly "masculine" men in the film, not exactly positive.
    The film asks a lot of questions that are very difficult to answer to be sure but I feel he gives you enough to understand that violence is not the answer.
     

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