Sam Peckinpaugh is generally associated with stylized, violent westerns. And while the 1971 Straw Dogs is a rather violent flick, it’s not a western and oddly enough it stars a bookish Dustin Hoffman.
After rising to stardom via rolls in films as different as The Graduate and Midnight Cowboy, Hoffman had secured his spot in cinema for decades to come. Of course both of these previous roles cast the young actor into characters that, while attractive on screen, weren’t seen as physically dominating or imposing. And really, for most of Straw Dogs, Hoffman’s character is a effable mathematician who works to ingratiate himself to his Cornish neighbors.
Setting the film in this Northern England town served the purpose of rooting Straw Dogs in the ‘70s anti-war rhetoric. Hoffman’s character – David Sumner – has received a grant in order to write a book with this reasoning used to allow the mathematician and his wife to escape the embattled United States. The topic of war doesn’t really arise, but for a brief criticism from Mrs. Sumner while chastising her husband for not being able to commit to anything.
With this as the backdrop for the film, there are ample allusions to violence and the culture that surrounds it. A man hired to fix the garage is an exterminator, there’s a threat of violence whenever one enters the local pub and there’s even a sexual predator on the loose.
The rape scene, though, which is been derided as a bit over the top, finds Susan George confronted by a forceful, former lover. And as the graphic lead up to rape transpires, it calmly dissolves into something less than acceptance, but not quite willingness. But as another man joins this old lover, the violent act is shown through the facial expressions of George.
This recounting of the film, thus far, does make the narrative seem filled with aggression. But to watch it, more often then not, the specter of violence is as disconcerting as anything else. This is a Sam Peckinpaugh movie after all and considering viewers don’t get tough guys riding horses, drunken Englishmen supplant the American archetype.
It does take nearly an hour for the action to finally begin, but once it does, it doesn’t stop until there are six bodies (I think I counted right). The body count isn’t the astounding thing, but the way in which this all devolves into a mindless, self serving attack on an outsider. For some reason, though, the fact that Hoffman holds his own against myriad attackers isn’t distracting within the narrative. It could be the acting prowess of this sometimes nebbish American, but considering the situation that he’s placed in – or get’s himself in, you be the judge – his actions aren’t the surprising part, it’s the outcome.
Fitting into the ‘new Hollywood’ that came about towards the tail end of the ‘60s, Straw Dogs in some ways is a reflection of Western culture and the social mores that we’ve all developed and live by. Of course, the ending might mean that we need to change.