Straw Dogs (1971)

Straw Dogs (1971), directed by Sam Peckinpah.

An American mathematician and his English wife move to a country house near her home town. They don't seem well-matched: he's brainy and introverted and needs time alone for his work. She's contrary, pouting and hot blooded, requiring lots of attention. An old boyfriend is hanging about; he'd like to fill her needs.

David isn't getting on well with the locals. Like many intellectuals he is awkward around laborers, in this case a dangerously rough lot. Tension mounts and someone kills their cat and leaves it hanging in the bedroom closet. He does nothing about it and his wife charges him with cowardice. She is raped by two of the men but does not tell her husband or anyone else.

It all comes to a violent climax on a foggy night when David shelters a retarded man from a local mob who besiege the house. Repelling the invaders with inventively bloody means, he comes into his own as a survivor defending his home. I think it's what he wanted: his wife and the locals don't respect his intellect or his reticent demeanor, so let's see how they like him when he's angry.

He's happy at the end: "I got 'em all." Which is premature: they always jump one last time.

It was fantastically controversial at the time and continues to provoke. Not just for the Peckinpah bloody action, but for the rape scene and sexual politics. Amy is attacked first by her old boyfriend. She resists, then gives in and seems to cooperate, showing signs of pleasure. Then she's assaulted even more savagely by his friend (sodomy, we think), which is horrific.

(An aside about life with the movies. Most of us are pleased to see naked women. Undressed actresses are usually quite pretty. But then I started noticing that even the naked corpses are pretty. That disturbed me in Eyes Wide Shut. Recall how in many movie rape scenes are filmed with a sort of erotic intensity. The reprehensible can be made good-looking, even stimulating. Same, of course, with other types of violence).

Here's where Peckinpah messes with us. Susan George is pretty. (Great!) Then she's beaten and assaulted. (Bad! We wish we could save her!) But we see her naked. (We feel guilty about seeing her this way, guilty because we want to see her). Then she changes her mind. (Does she? Can she do that? Are we supposed to cheer them on now? Getting confused...) Then the second man assaults her and it's all bad. (Isn't it?)

We're whipsawed by the rapid succession of the appealing and the repellent and our worry and guilt that we're going to confuse right and wrong, maybe take pleasure in another's pain or experience inappropriate lust. There is a parallel segment in Walkabout (1971) when our enjoyment of Jenny Agutter swimming nude is spoiled by intercut scenes of animals being hunted and butchered. Or more directly, in The Coca-Cola Kid when we catch the bodacious Greta Scacchi in the shower but she has a little girl with her who we don't want to see in that circumstance.

Susan George had been a child actress and that probably made the story more wrenching for UK audiences.

There are even more questions I'm not going to get into: to what extent the women are responsible for the violence in the story. They don't cause it, but they contribute.

Available on Blu-ray. Jerry Fielding score. Remade in 2011.

In the thumbnails I don't show much of the rape scene; it's just too much. Most of the violence during the siege is too dark for stills.