Friday, May 18, 2007

Film Review #102: Straw Dogs
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Susan George, Del Henney

Many movie-goers know director Sam Peckinpah best for his Westerns – those depicting the end of the Old West and especially his slow-motion choreographies of extreme violence. The signature example is 1969’s The Wild Bunch, with outlaws Pike Bishop (William Holden) and Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) on collision course with each other and forces larger than themselves. Peckinpah was criticized for that film’s unsettling mixture of lingering with such balletic grace on detailed, hyper-realistic gore, even accused of glorifying violence. Films as diverse as George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (released only a couple months after The Wild Bunch) and Doug Limon’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005) seem to have lifted their climatic shoot-outs from Peckinpah. But Peckinpah himself seems clearly to have meant the film as a cautionary tale, saying after its premiere, “Now they know what killing is really like.”

Two years after The Wild Bunch, in the holiday season just before New Year’s, Peckinpah released a modern-dress film. Starring Dustin Hoffman and the English actress Susan George as David and Amy Sumner, Straw Dogs depicts a contemporary young couple who have left the US to escape its violence and find “some quiet,” as David says, in the English countryside of Amy’s hometown at St. Buryan, Cornwall. Tea roses is not what they find.

David is a research mathematician. Algebraic formulas cover the blackboard in his study. Amy has a habit of erasing his plus signs on the blackboard and replacing them with minuses when she wanders through the room. He takes this not as affectionate, or even wanting attention, but as dismissive of his serious work. So she is immature, he defensive. Add to this that the locals – and Cornwall, its remote moors on the poorest, western-most tip of Briton, with its own ancient language and archeology, was fiercely insular and historically separatist – mostly regard David in his white sneakers and high-water pants much like an Eastern tender-foot, the stock fool in countless Westerns, and a coward.

At first these men smirk and taunt David in the pub. Some of the same men, ostensibly roofing the garage but mostly drinking and leering at Amy, hang her cat in the bedroom closet. They take David hunting in order to leave him lost on the moor, tripping over a borrowed gun. The loutish Charlie (Del Henney) and Norman (Ken Hutchison) move on to rape – a long scene that kept the film banned in England from 1984 until 2002, unsettling for its roughness and its deep ambiguity about whether Amy is aroused. There is an alcohol-soaked invasion of the Sumner house and David – who has actually been getting crosser for some time – defends his home, wife and a mentally fragile local man. The film’s tag-line calls David’s metamorphosis “the birth of a man,” while some reviewers call it a “homicidal rampage.” Neither catches Peckinpah’s far subtler direction or Hoffman’s performance, but you can see the battle lines drawn here, before Charles Bronson’s Death Wish franchise.

It’s worth recalling that a young couple – with or without particular social consciousness – might want to retreat from 1971 America, even then resembling the set of a Peckinpah classic in modern costume. Less than a year after the Kent State shootings, the Weather Underground blew up a restroom in the Capitol’s Senate wing in Washington, DC – this was the moment when Capitol police began checking all visitors for weapons. The US was still in Vietnam under Nixon, though our allies were withdrawing their forces and Nixon had to reduce troop levels. In 1971 a military tribunal convicted Lt. William Calley of murder in the 1968 deaths of twenty-two civilians at the Vietnamese village of My Lai. Sentenced to life in prison, Calley was freed by Nixon. And in September, just a few miles west of here in Wyoming County, 29 inmates and 10 hostages died when Governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered the re-taking of Attica Prison.

The Sumners sought an older, more civilized retreat to ride out America’s shock waves. The film’s opening shot, which comes into focus as slowly as a dawning realization, shows children playing ring-around-the-rosy in the village square’s cemetery. So Peckinpah moved from the end of the Old West to the death of the West itself. And right now Rod Lurie (The Contender) is directing the re-make.

This review was published in the 5/17/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a weekly column reviewing recent films that didn’t open in Syracuse & older films of enduring worth. Recommended DVD edition is Criterion Collection’s 2003 2-disc set.