Lawrence Russell

Straw Dogs (1971) dir. Sam Peckinpah writ. Goodman and Peckinpah (from the novel The Siege of Trencher's Farm by Gordon Williams) cine John Coquillon music Jerry Fielding star Dustin Hoffman (David), Susan George (Amy), Peter Vaughan (Charlie), T.P. McKenna, David Warner (Idiot), Cherina Schaer (Janice)

No never means No

Xenophobia, in-breeding, and boredom appear to be the motivators for a collection of rural English hooligans who terrorize an American mathematician called David and his sexy young English wife Amy who have returned from the States for a year's sabbatical in an isolated stone house. The house looks like a Bronte made over by Vidal Sasson -- lease me for a year and I'll give you the best sexual nightmare you've ever had.

The surrounding landscape is a desolate incline of stone dikes and treeless fields that emerge from the distant sea in a Stone Age simplicity. The color is pulled from the panorama as the camera follows the fog and muddy animal lanes that converge in a shabby village that resembles a farm yard. It's here in the local pub that the men receive their guidance from an old drunken belligerent called Tom Venner, a blood patriarch whose sexual neurosis is bluntly expressed in the nymph-trollop persona of his fourteen year old daughter Janice. Janice is a wannabe Amy, dresses like her -- mini skirt and no bra.

To old Tom's displeasure, Janice flaunts herself before the American outsider (Dustin Hoffman), and the village idiot (Warner). More theatrical than original, the script uses these stock ensemble characters to support an improbable story-line of sex and violence that leaves you wondering if the real hoodlum in the scenario isn't old Tom or the idiot Henry Nils or the Rat Catcher or any of the other neoliths but rather the director, Sam Peckinpah.

As in his previous film (The Wild Bunch), Peckinpah opens with a symbolism using children. But instead of encircling and torturing a hapless scorpion, this time they dance around an ancient grave in the village green. There's nothing subtle with Peckinpah. His symbolisms are always as heavy as a grave stone, and this film is no exception: the hero loads an "antique" iron mantrap into his wife's sports car with the help of her former lover.

There are strong similarities to Harold Pinter's play The Homecoming, famous in the late sixties. A prof returns from the USA with his wife to visit with his family, a gruesome collection of male misfits whose father is an old butcher, another paranoid patriarch similar to Tom Venner. The mother is dead and the brothers install the prof's wife as her replacement, a madonna-whore who will resurrect their economic and spiritual needs. The characters are all manipulative, operating by innuendo and sociopathic impulse. Users and abusers all, they actually meet their match in Ruth, who -- unlike Amy -- knows how to use her sexual power.

Peckinpah is all Wild West, however. His thesis appears to be that the domestic violence of the United States is not only possible but inevitable in the smug kingdom by the sea, England. It's this dramatic possibility that gives the action a certain poetic grace, law and order slowly disintegrating as men assert their primacy as the beasts they know they are. Thus the destination is pornography.

The violent assault of Amy (Susan George) by her former lover Charlie while her husband has been decoyed into a futile grouse hunt was leading-edge voyeurism for the times. This scene more than any other is why the film was banned in the U.K. While Charlie has to slap her around a bit, this rough stuff is just part of the sexual game where No never means No. When her clothing is skilfully ripped and penetration made, Amy eagerly grinds her way into adultery. When they are interrupted at gunpoint by Scott the roofer and he substitutes himself for Charlie, the sex reverts to rape.

Later, when Nils the idiot strangles Janice and David gives him sanctuary, the Venner gang has due license to attack the stone farm house. The ineffectual one-armed magistrate (the "Major") is swiftly shotgunned and mayhem begins to a background chorus of fog horns and yelping rats. Of course the mild-mannered mathematician is converted to the credo of self-preservation and with typical American adaptability gets his traitorous wife in order (a few slaps) and goes on to make the invasion a living hell for the invaders. Who is left alive? Certainly not old Tom, or the Rat Catcher, or "Charlie". Don't push an American, buddy. Even if he is a geek.

There is beauty in the narrative rhythm, where the edits are as seamless as the melancholy music score by Jerry Fielding. The music is psychologically accurate, an ensemble brass piece that is pedigreed between the jazz minimalism of Miles Davis and the classical signatures of Vaughan Williams. For this reason the film is very nice to watch at times and helps you forget about "motivation" and cultural reality. Not that the English can't be a pack of swine, but are you expected to believe that the only character in the entire story with any integrity is the vacuous American mathematician? Instead of getting bonafide tradesmen to work on his garage, it's as if he hires the Rolling Stones and discovers his wife is Marianne Faithful.

Sometimes verging on the ludicrous, this film is a curious blend of Hollywood hyperbole and British Masterpiece Theatre. It's technically so well done, you might almost believe it.

© LR 71/99


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