directed by Sam Peckinpah; starring Dustin Hoffman, Susan George, Peter Vaughan, T.P. McKenna
Unruly child that it was, the New Hollywood movement of the late-Vietnam-to-Watergate era thought it could spend eternity tear-assing through the lobby of staid Mainstream Cinema, overturning plants and setting off cherry bombs without so much as a spanking. Instead, it wound up with its picture on milk cartons by the time Ronald Reagan took office.
Chief among its crimes against banality was the zits-and-all candor with which it served up women. It’s as if directors used the era of the Equal Rights Amendment and Germaine Greer to level the playing field, in the truest sense of the term: Fair enough, ladies. You want women depicted as flawed, realistic human beings? Female characters afforded the same complexity and sophistication that balding screenwriters grant their male characters? Everyday women who reflect your woes and concerns, who sometimes go without bras and forget to take their birth control, rather than the impeccably coiffed, gossamer queens of yore? Fine. Have a bite of Jane Fonda’s hooker in Klute — she sees a shrink and makes it clear that her life doesn’t revolve around her faceless clientele! How ’bout Faye Dunaway’s corporate boss swinging her dick better than any of the men in Network? Oh, here’s adulterous wives Susan Clark in Night Moves and Lily Tomlin in Nashville, fumbling their way through the post-Sexual Revolution landscape just like you! Fittingly, shopping-mall feminists across America roundly rejected the fully-faceted humanity — the equality — they claimed to have wanted, retreating from the Fondas and the Ellen Burstyns and the Jill Clayburghs, and diving headlong into the arms of the Meg Ryans and Sandra Bullocks waiting just around the corner. Fonda starred in Klute; Julia Roberts gave us Pretty Woman. Sold!
Which brings us to a nebbish named David Sumner unsheathing his inner Neanderthal to become a one-man army against a gang of bloodthirsty home invaders in Straw Dogs. Had the Schraders of Grand Rapids, Michigan never had a son named Paul, then Sam Peckinpah’s second greatest film just might stand as the best film of that early to mid-Seventies golden age, not to mention, the Citizen Kane of what I like to call Powder-Keg Cinema: the explosive-elements-which-can-only-lead-to-violent-climax type of film best exemplified by the Paul Schrader-penned Taxi Driver (and encompassing everything from James Toback’s Fingers to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing).
Ask around about this here Straw Dogs, though. Ask Pauline Kael (“fascist”) and Roger Ebert. Ask the British censors responsible for the film’s twenty-year status as porno-sadism unfit for home video release. Ask director Rod Lurie, who helmed the 2011 remake. You might even check with Dustin Hoffman, who reportedly only took the role of David for the dough and seems to hold Straw Dogs apart from the rest of his filmography, like some shitty diaper that threatens to contaminate the likes of Ishtar and Family Business with its toxic stink-waves. Poll the lot of ’em, you’ll learn two things: one, all Peckinpah’s treatise on man’s territorial nature adds up to is crack some skulls and you’re finally a real man; two (and most importantly), its Infamous Rape Sequence featuring the delectable Mrs. Sumner stands as Exhibit A in the prosecution of Sam Peckinpah’s hatred of women. Christ, Martha, it’s as if Bloody Sam himself stumbled out of his grave just to piss 100 proof whiskey down our pants legs and crow in our faces about how every little cunt secretly craves a little forced entry to keep her ass in line!
Like many an actual rape, the violation of Amy Sumner (played by Susan George) is perpetrated by a man she knows — her former lover — and, as such, the entire sequence is shot through with fragments of the tenderness and the me-Tarzan-you-Jane domination she once enjoyed with him. He knew/knows his role and didn’t/doesn’t hesitate to embody it: simple acts of male decisiveness essential to attaining both respect and pussy, something only bitter lesbians and men who lack experience with actual women would deny. Granted, maintaining a direct line to one’s inner simian is quite the double-edged sword; here, the blade damn near cuts a smile in her throat.
George insisted to Peckinpah that her eyes alone would convey all the turmoil and confusion he wanted here; she wasn’t lying. We’re barely a couple minutes into the maelstrom before her face opens up a novel’s worth of messy, conflicting little human details. Yes, Amy’s repulsed and frightened by the savagery of this man she once invited to ravish her. Yes, she’s horrified at feeling like she’s betrayed her marriage. But her brutish ex puts his finger on a pulse that Hubby has yet to even find. She’s frantic as she tries to gauge just how much her mixed-signal attention-seeking could have nudged this moment into existence, yet she’s so desperate to feel desired that she finds solace in the grip of a man willing to risk prison (to say nothing of his own humanity) just to have her once more. Add to this the condescension bordering on scorn and lack of warmth that she endures from her husband, stir in a bit of the primal attraction that every woman harbors toward the Unrefined Male Beast, and — voilà! — you now have the culprit for the film’s perpetual bête noire status among the Defenders of Feminine Virtue (whose most worrisome members these days are, of course, men).
Pesky details, however, only get in the way of a good moral outrage. So do your sense of civic duty a favor and forget that the brutality, the sense of invasion, the sheer this-can’t-be-happening-to-me horror of rape are all fully present and accounted for here. (Doubting Thomases need only watch Amy trying to levitate out of her own skin as the second rapist shows up to take his “turn.”) Never mind that Peckinpah refuses for one second to soft-pedal or trivialize her ordeal, that Amy is actually the character for whom the drunken old misogynist seems to show something closest to sympathy. Never mind that facets of this sequence combine to form what is arguably the most complex flesh-and-blood mosaic of female sexuality to ever burn a hole through a movie screen. For that matter, never mind the countless real-life women with rape fantasies, for whom even a little mid-coitus choking is a welcome break from metrosexual nancy-boys afraid to spank their asses too hard during doggy-style.
And while you’re at it, simply ignore my personal observation that, of the various women I’ve shown Straw Dogs to (and at this point, it’s just about my When I Start to Get Serious About a Girl Movie), nary a one of them has seen fit to react with the proper clenched-fist apoplexy. Just tell yourself that the rape of Amy Sumner is an attack on Womanhood Itself and close your sphincter ‘round a toothpick in service of a feminist orthodoxy for which precious few women in the real world seem to have much actual use. After all, it’s not your fault that Peckinpah upchucks a huge mess in our laps and leaves it to us to sort the corn from the meat; apparently, he had this bizarre notion of cinema as an art form that reflects the gray areas and troubling ambiguities of Real Life. Of course, he happened to do so with subject matter that the erstwhile champions of “subtlety” and “complexity” demand to see portrayed only in the starkest black-and-white. Naturally, it caused the Ms. Magazine crowd to shit a brick; reviews and op-ed pieces have reeked of the stench ever since.
“Sure, Amy’s enjoying it. At least with the first hombre who takes her. The second one is a bit more than she bargained for, but that’s one of the prices she pays for playing her little game. There’s always a price to pay, doctor.”
— Peckinpah, Playboy interview, Aug. 1972 issue
Like any true artist worth a damn, Sam Peckinpah maintained a side career in self-destructiveness, and to say that his statements to the press may have colored people’s reactions is to suggest that when having a large steel rod jammed up one’s ass, one may feel a slight pinch. Yet, why should Peckinpah have cut down on the macho bluster and spilled his innermost secrets and fears — the Real Him — for the whole world to pick through? (When you trudge in to your shit, dull office job every morning, do you stop by the desk of Fat Cathy the Receptionist to analyze the argument you had with your fuck-buddy the night before?)
All artists are solid bullshit merchants. The greater the talent, the higher the wall of dung placed between us and them; and with Peckinpah, the finest American filmmaker of the Nixon years, one often needed to be helicoptered in just to reach the other side of it. It’s a test of our own critical faculties: do we accept what’s on the surface or do we have the ability to dig beneath layers, to question our own assumptions and prejudices, to pry off masks and find the human heart throbbing somewhere within? The harder they make it for us — whether via inscrutable personas or ridiculous, off-putting comments in interviews — the easier it is to separate the true passengers from the bandwagon-of-the-moment jumpers, the real critics from the lazy jackasses content to label Straw Dogs “justification for the manliness of rape and killing” after a single viewing. To my mind, Peckinpah’s goading of the press, be it a Playboy interviewer or some yo-yo from the Wallahatchee Beacon, isn’t terribly different from Spike Jonze stating with a straight face that location scouts for Being John Malkovich found an honest-to-goodness 7 1/2 Floor: both lit a match to the snarling Rottweiler of accepted critical authority and neither was surprised to see the pooch go up in flames.
Spike Jonze, though, is a wacky kid playing with his Tonka trucks in the sandbox of indie-hued postmodernism; Peckinpah was a hard-drinking son of the open plains with both World War II and several marriages under his belt. And he knew women. Oh, how he knew women. He knew the spoiled-silly, self-centered, childish little girls who half-heartedly milk the tit of “independence” while still expecting to have their bills and dinner tabs paid at the flutter of an eyelash. He knew the girls who look to society (which is to say, men) to provide their happiness (which is to say, financial security), only to limp into their still-single thirties-and-beyond as bitter, unfulfilled, coiled-up little balls of sarcasm-posing-as-humor with poison darts aimed at any less-than-alpha male foolish enough to attempt flattery — and this, despite said females’ basic wardrobe consisting of B-cup tits push-bra’ed up through an attention-craving neckline like a fucking alien bursting out of John Hurt’s stomach. (Hard to soapbox about “objectification,” ladies, when your chins are resting on your cleavage.)
Likewise, Peckinpah knew what his generation of men had been, for better or for worse. And peeking over the brow of the hill, he saw tomorrow’s hordes taking their sweet time as they shuffled their way toward a generational mantle already growing cold: a bunch of boys whose daddies didn’t stick around, raised by women and molded in an increasingly feminized society hellbent on taking the idea of righting yesterday’s wrongs and making a new Christianity out of it. He saw dickless douchebags who don’t know how to take care of a woman, who shy away from the male imperative because they deem it to be a club wielded by “the patriarchy”; men ready to deny the very blood coursing through their veins in some misguided stab at social corrective. What it all added up to: the coming of the Me Generation ’70s; the retreat from genuine social engagement and risking one’s neck for change; a self-satisfied, well-fed America ensconced in its easy chairs, patting its bellies and cranking up the volume on Archie Bunker and the Fonz, rolling its eyes at Walter Cronkite talking about yet another development in the prolonging of the mess in Vietnam, or yet another crime committed somewhere over on the black side of town.
With Straw Dogs, Peckinpah takes the ancient nature of Woman and marries it to the neutered spectacle of the Modern Male on the altar of a savage animal kingdom devoid of grace or beauty; or at least, it’s a world where such things are revealed as mere pretense soon enough. You can quibble with the airlessness of his vision here but it’s his prerogative as an artist — no more offensive on its own merits than a candy-colored musical or whimsical rom-com or cloying indie smash where even the barista at Starbucks is full of pre-fab “quirk.” Besides, Peckinpah makes it all resonate. His England is no England, but the hostile, strange land that America itself resembled for many middle-class David Sumners by 1971. Men shoot birds with aplomb because it’s what men do. It’s only a matter of time before they turn the guns on each other.
Never mind the workers-turned-Goliaths, though; Peckinpah considered David the true “heavy” of the piece. (And he is.) If NOW members got their tits in a wringer because Amy’s rape scene called ’em on all those nights they donned flavored lingerie and played Sexy Burglar Ravishes the Lady of the House, well, the men of the world weren’t exactly writing Bloody Sam any thank-you letters.
David Sumner is no underdog hero who “finally learns to stand up for himself” (à la the film’s trailer and promotional materials), he’s a bitter, seething, socially inept coward whose wormy little smile scarcely bothers to mask his sense of superiority and impatience with all those who aren’t “astro-mathematicians” given grants to retire to the English countryside and piece together great academic tomes. He’s a high-handed, supercilious turd whose idea of rational communication with his wife is, “I love you, but I want you to leave me alone” or “You know, you’re not so dumb”; whose idea of entertaining a visit from the village vicar is to argue about religion before putting on a bagpipe record full-blast; whose idea of connubial passion includes pausing to set the bedside alarm clock. His method of engaging with the world around him is to either take no stand at all (fleeing the States at the height of ‘Nam-era unrest because he’s “never claimed to be one of the involved”) or to take one far too late in the game, and without conviction (his plan to confront the workers about Amy’s cat, found strangled in their bedroom closet, ends with him abandoned on the moor and thoroughly cuckolded). Class and education form the parchment that separates him from the low-rung yokels he’s hired to work on the farmhouse. Class and education — his constant reminder of the social status and good old American green he thinks the natives will bow to in worship — are what he whips out, like a monogrammed silk hanky, at the slightest invitation.
Make no mistake about it, though: David shares the same brutality as his tormentors, and — because he is more intelligent, more calculating — there’s a cruelty to him that all but perhaps Amy’s second rapist lack. Like any man who has to prove himself, David is massively insecure; we’re ever aware that his degree-waving and, later, needless escalation of the conflict are fueled by the fact that the men around him have bigger dicks. (Or, if you prefer, it’s his fundamental impotence that Peckinpah’s getting at — he contrasts Amy’s seduction-by-rape with duck-hunting David who fumbles at proper gun discharge then stands there while his dead little birdy goes completely limp.)
These coarse men of action who make their livings with their hands, who don’t need to hire others to do their menial labor, are the kinds of men David secretly envies — men with the sand to act out what intellectualizers like himself can only kick around in the sanctuary of their own heads. Thus, his casual, passive-aggressive torture of Amy’s cat is completed by the (unseen) assailant who hangs it. His inability to focus and get his life’s great work finished is contrasted with the simple blue-collar tasks performed by the workers just outside his window. (Amy to David: “If you could hammer a nail…”) His inadequacy at fulfilling Amy’s need for attention prods her into a topless walk past a window, where the stares of the workers (including her soon-to-be rapists) provide a quick fix. His ineptitude at subduing Amy and getting her to do as he wants — his man-of-the-house initiative — is mocked by the film as her rapists have no such trouble accomplishing the same.
Lastly, his failure to provide Amy with even the smallest sense of protection during the climactic siege is only highlighted by her ex, Charlie. She can’t believe David insists on keeping her in close quarters with the town pervert, whom David has hit with their car and is shepherding until “help arrives”; meanwhile, Charlie (who aims to slay the dragon) appears as the only safe port in the storm — one to which she immediately runs, only to have David slap the shit out of her and nearly break her wrist before banishing her from the room. So much for pacifism.
At last, David will do something “a man should do” — protect his home, his castle — at any cost, for even the flimsiest of reasons. That he does so in “defense” of a known child molester who’s just inadvertently murdered a girl, while the violation of his own wife remains completely unknown to him is Peckinpah’s ultimate joke (and comment) on the character. One smarmy little pussy decides to finally — belatedly — prove who’s got the biggest dick after all, and six men end up dead, his wife ends up emotionally scarred for life, and his marriage lies in ruins along with his tranquil little Cornish farmhouse. (Kids, can you say “Pyrrhic victory?”) That Amy’s two rapists are among the dead is, again, pure coincidence. Had she tearfully confessed the attack to David, he’d have done nothing more than stare into space uncomprehendingly while muttering about notifying the police, and offering her a pat on the back and a cup of tea for good measure.
Sure, the plot mechanics that the film employs in order to bring us Dustin Hoffman with a can of whoop-ass and a can opener may cry out for a little WD-40 at the hinges. From the first act, you know something dreadful’s going to happen to that goddamn cat, and certainly, it would take an IQ lower than that of the film’s semi-retarded village pervert to look at that man-trap over the Sumner mantle and not know that Chekhov’s gun is gonna go pop by Act Three. Your hipster friends might even titter at the perfect timing of the phone line getting cut, or at the good ol’ Bad-Guy-Who’s-Still-Alive-and-Pops-Up-at-the-Last-Minute standby. Except that a) these weren’t good ol’ standbys when Peckinpah did them and b) they work even now, long after Straw Dogs shot its tainted chromosomes into the cinematic gene pool and sired a hundred Downie-baby knockoffs that bludgeoned these moments into the tired old tropes we now know them as.
It’s the overall impact that counts, and said impact is one of such ruthless momentum that to nitpick in the face of it would be to resemble a woman I once showed Apocalypse Now — a woman who complained, after 153 acid-trip minutes of purple smoke, blue tigers, Mount Brando meditating on Evil, and Dennis Hopper being Dennis Hopper, that the film was “unrealistic” because Coppola never showed them getting fuel for the boat. (“It’s probably in the original cut,” I muttered over the audible hiss of her oral sex privileges deflating like a Goodyear under the blade of a psychotic ex.)
Besides, David’s obstinacy in the face of mounting danger is no less a creaky plot construction on his part: it sparks the confrontation for which he’s clearly been salivating. (Note how calmly he announces to Amy that they stand to be killed if the men get inside.) He may be smiling like a man born anew when the smoke clears, but he hasn’t learned a damn thing, hasn’t learned to acknowledge his own hostility, his own violence. He’d have likely told anyone who asked that he was left no choice but to defend home and hearth, that these savage thugs encroached upon his civilized world and all but placed the shotgun, the poker, the knife, the pots full of boiling cleaning solution, and the gigantic bear-trap in his hands. “It’s those men who are the violent savages,” he’d say. “I only did what I had to do.” He’d probably even believe it.
And so David Sumner remains. Ever the solipsist managing to piss off people wherever he goes. Ever the white knight in a land of dirt and grime, unsullied atop his sports car chariot as he waves his peace signs and American cigarettes at the grubby natives below. Ever the Ugly American. (Some right-wing masterpiece this is.) No wonder it’s the village idiot David rides off into the fog with — a perfect sunset for this agoraphobic, inverted Western. That poor nitwit was the Pearl Harbor that enabled David to Stand Up For What’s Right, asserting both his moral primacy and that old frontier imperative to crack a few heads when trod upon.
He’ll need him again.
©2010 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic
(This piece was originally posted March 6, 2010 to the now-defunct blog Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic.)