Straw Dogs

Mere seconds after Sam Peckinpah’s director’s credit fades out over a blurred image of child’s-play coming into sharp focus, a group of boys halts all activity to gaze upon Amy Sumner. Or, more specifically, they stop to gaze upon Amy Sumner’s sweatered — but otherwise unfettered — breasts, which bob and sway in synch with her breezy stride down the lone thoroughfare of a grubby English town. The children’s focus could not be less ambiguous, because Peckinpah introduces Amy’s breasts in extreme, lingering close-up before he introduces Amy herself. When the camera finally pulls back to reveal the rest of Mrs. Sumner, we see the fresh-scrubbed beauty of Susan George, moving her impossibly sexy body with the relaxed air of someone whose fumbling, self-conscious attempts at allure are but faint and distant memories.

Amy is that rarest of human creatures: a woman who is effortlessly comfortable in her own body and makes no attempt to be otherwise. It’s impossible not to notice that she exists, and it’s this same power to command attention and provoke disquieting feelings that will eventually drive her admirers to punish her for making their weaknesses palpable. That a similar fate would also befall Peckinpah upon the release of Straw Dogs is an irony that could not have been lost on the man, though it’s doubtful he ever came to fully appreciate the humor in it. Above all else, Straw Dogs is famous for being controversial, a legacy born of widespread critical derision upon its release, then stoked and sealed by the fact that it was perennially banned in Britain. It’s probably assumed by the uninitiated that this reaction must have been due to excessive or graphic violence, but anybody looking for a rockin’ good splatter-fest is bound to come away disappointed.

Straw Dogs is a violent film and an excessive film, but not in the way we conceive of those qualities today. Peckinpah comes not to strafe, but to corner and confine and smother. His journey into human violence is no thrill-ride; it’s a pressure-cooker. In that respect, Straw Dogs holds up exquisitely well, particularly as a visceral experience. Peckinpah manages to evoke a sense of dread and menace that’s truly remarkable, especially considering that the bulk of the film takes place in broad daylight and in innocuously rustic settings. There’s a genuinely creepy vibe to this thing, with the relatively mundane exchanges seeming as squirm-worthy as the climactic displays of physical violence. Peckinpah’s approach is that of a predatory beast, gazing and circling relentlessly while he zeroes in on the details that comprise a self-made tyranny of sustained human tensions.

To this end, he narrows the world to a tiny strip of a town, places his tiny central characters in a sizable house rendered tiny by the stark landscape it inhabits, and then trains his eye on a torturously tiny strip of human experience. Peckinpah’s vision is pared down to the point of narrative and emotional claustrophobia, doggedly refusing to dabble in naturalism or a balanced view of the human spectrum. To some, this renders its power moot and false, perhaps even dangerous and exploitative. But it’s precisely this narrowing that shifts the film into a place where its particularity carries the force of emotional fable, expanding its examination of violence by injecting the air of violence into every frame, however placid its contents. Regardless of what one thinks about Straw Dogs, it would take a spine of steel to escape feeling the film, and this is Peckinpah’s enduring triumph over critical dismissal, because it’s clear that his critics’ discomfort (and ours) was exactly what he’d hoped to achieve.

If he also suffered the indignity of widespread failure to understand the purpose of this methodical assault on our sensibilities, surely he ought not to have been half as surprised as he was. Perceiving a lack of such introspective recognition must have been at least one motivation for his approach in the first place, though he obviously had no idea how deep that denial might run, because the negative responses seemed to blind-side and enrage him. In fairness, however, it’s helpful to remember that the most serious criticisms hurled at the movie were, in fact, criticisms hurled at its maker and the world-view they thought they caught him promoting. The most head-scratchingly common among these is Peckinpah’s supposed embrace of physical violence as the only honorable route to manliness; a charge he vehemently denied, and rightly so if the proof of that assertion is to be found in the body of the film itself.

If anything, the cumulative details in Straw Dogs play as a shame-faced confessional, stripping bare the myriad ways violence is expressed through displacement and passive means of force. Sitting through the movie with even a modicum of awareness, it’s impossible to deny that Peckinpah knows whereof his camera and splicer speak. To conjure extremes of unsavory emotional terrain with such precision betrays his intimate knowledge of the landscape, and, to Peckinpah’s everlasting credit, he takes us on this grim psychological tour without flinching. There are no concessions to uplift. There is no mitigation or qualification. There are no reassurances, and there’s certainly no palpable catharsis. Instead, we get a dance of resentments and longings, provocations and retreats, assertions and denials, expressions and suppressions that accumulate and build on one another, boiling up and over until nothing but destruction is left in their wake. The physical violence that erupts in the last act is less the natural conclusion of a realistic storyline than a metaphorical extension of all that’s come before it.

Though the context (American city boy vs. British yokels) and many of the depictions of character create the illusion of simplicity (some might say simple-mindedness), the film as a whole is far more complex than most people give it credit for. Most egregiously, the central dynamic is routinely mischaracterized. David Sumner isn’t even remotely a meek, cerebral pacifist being forced to turn violent by a gang of less civilized thugs. For one thing, he’s a thug himself. And David isn’t particularly meek, either. He’s just small, which renders him passive and ineffectual around bigger men or groups. But whenever he senses an advantage, David is no less a bully than the louts who surround him. In moments when he feels confident about his standing, David is openly aggressive, making his eventual “transformation” more a leap of degree and style than of substance. I doubt that the casting of Hoffman was incidental. Any number of larger actors could have played a character amounting to nothing more than a representation of intellect vs. physicality. With Hoffman — whose fussy, methodical perfectionism fits hand and glove with this role — you get a calculating control-freak of a guy whose stature dictates that he be passive in aid of self-preservation, whether he wants to be or not. And it’s obvious from nearly frame one that he does not want to be passive. He guards this secret rage like a junkyard dog, bristling at any invitation to reveal or act on it and displacing its force by heaping petty tortures onto the woman he married.

Peckinpah never hides this essential aspect of David from us, but he obviously underestimated how thoroughly even those he presumed to be smart and savvy enough to catch their drift might misread his visual and tonal cues. Foremost among those who reviled Straw Dogs was the estimable Pauline Kael, whose vociferous respect for Peckinpah’s artistry only further served to turn her criticisms of his ideas and intentions into a lacerating condemnation of the man himself. The sense that she felt betrayed by a dearly-loved favorite is palpable, and her review reads like the defensive ramblings of a spouse who feels compelled to justify her initial decision to get hitched to the guy, even as she details the outrages necessitating immediate divorce. In reference to Peckinpah’s depiction of David, she wrote:

And this is the stupidity and moral corruption of Straw Dogs. It may be necessary to be violent in order to defend your home and your principles, but Peckinpah-Patton thinks that’s what makes a man a man. Yet there is also — one senses — a slight condescension on Peckinpah’s part, and this relates to his anti-intellectualism: David has become as other men, has lost his intellectual’s separation from the beasts, and Peckinpah’s victory is in bringing him down.


You can see why Peckinpah loaded the dice against David at the beginning: he had to make David such a weakling that only killing could rouse him to manhood.

Setting aside the absurd contradictions in her own reading of the material (how did she manage to see the bringing down of a principled intellectual so firmly separate from the “beasts” if he’s nothing but a weakling from the get-go?), it’s shocking to realize that she makes only hesitant reference to what “one senses” to be a “slight condescension on Peckinpah’s part” toward David. Peckinpah’s condescension toward David is the point of the entire film, and there’s nothing slight about it. Nor is Peckinpah’s derision an expression of anti-intellectualism. Instead, it is David’s cruelty and hypocrisy that seem to rile the director. Not because he’s a primal beast who won’t acknowledge his glorious manhood until he picks up a weapon to defend his home and his principles (a crock of an interpretation if ever there was one), but because he’s a bully of a different stripe whose “principles” amount to fancying himself more civilized by virtue of the trappings he’s inherited or acquired.

Having adopted tactics that are seemingly passive, David wants and expects to dominate other men without having to fight out in the open. Consider the props he brings along to this rustic, working class village: well-publicized educational credentials; a trophy wife who also happens to be the once-’n’-future prize cow of the town; wealth enough to rent the local manor; a “job” that pays him to sit on his ass all day; and a ludicrously inappropriate sports car. On top of all that, he’s an American. Before we even know him, we know him, and so do they. When the locals eye the stranger, it’s not just his unfamiliar face catching their attention. He’s out of place in a calculated way, prepped-up in white slacks and sneakers to ride in his white roadster through a muddy, dusty, grimy town for which nothing white or sporty was designed. David is deliberately other in a way that’s meant to shield him through implied elevation.

When he first meets Charlie, he sizes him up as both a threat (his apparent history with Amy) and a lesser man (laborer). In a smarmy attempt to establish his impeccable civility, David addresses Charlie as “Mr. Venner,” to which Charlie responds by inviting David to call him Charlie instead. Mr. Civility’s response is to decline to respond at all. Instead, he trots over to the pub to spy on his wife and her ex, though ostensibly to buy some cigarettes. Once inside and done with the spying, he approaches the bar and asks for “any American brand” they’ve got, a fairly obvious insult that’s topped off when he declines to accept those cigarettes as “paid for” by one of the brutish regulars. David’s not just thoughtless in his approach to the locals; he’s aggressively thoughtless, unwilling to cede one brick from his delicate fortress of advantage.

David never stoops to rudeness, of course, because rudeness would bring him down from his perch. Instead, he’s affably condescending to the point of self-effacement, though he never loses sight of the line he’s drawn between himself and others, and he fully expects them to observe it, too. While outwardly friendly to the men in his employ, it never occurs to David to extend them the courtesy of familiarity. Throughout the film, the locals refer to him only as “sir” or “Mr. Sumner,” and throughout the film, he’s not once moved to discourage their deference, even when it’s revealed to be brazenly insincere. It’s not so much that David relishes lording his status over the other men in an openly tyrannical manner, because he certainly does not. Rather, he counts on their awareness of that status to protect him by limiting their willingness to undermine or harm a figure with authority. They work for him, after all. What better insulation could he have? And what greater insurance against rejection or insurrection could there be than his admirably benevolent approach to feudalism? In David’s eyes, they have no cause to disrespect him, so high is the road he travels. As the film progresses and their disdain for him becomes pointed and unbearable, he’ll show them who he is, all right. Not who he could become if provoked, mind you … but who he is.

What Kael and so many others seem to miss in this viscerally clockwork melodrama is that David is not meant to represent “everyman” in a morality play about the rightful triumph of primal urges over faux civilization. If Peckinpah hoped to represent anything pointedly political or philosophical, it’s more likely that David represents the hubris and denial of those Americans who used distance and affluence to shield themselves from recognizing the brutality of the hegemonic aggression they bought as the noble side of the cold war. It’s one thing to hide in your comfy study while other men are paid to do your dirty work, but it’s another altogether to expect them (and the world at large) to consider you inherently better in the bargain. Far from being an innocent dragged kicking and screaming into undesired confrontation, David is repeatedly driven to remind the louts that he’s already got what they probably want, exploiting the power of envy without regard for its combustible nature.

One of the key scenes between them comes when David — annoyed by Amy — decides to drive to town at the same time as they’re climbing into a friend’s truck to grab a ride home. They laugh as he mistakes the passenger’s side for the driver’s and again when he fumbles to put the car in the proper gear. Finally on the narrow road, David is trapped behind their lumbering vehicle, adding further to his frustration. He honks petulantly, as if to remind them that his chosen car is not a sports car for nothing. The men respond by waving him on to pass them, which he does with great glee until he realizes that they’ve waved him into oncoming traffic and a near-collision. Shaken when he reaches the village, David takes so long to compose himself that he ends up entering the bar far behind the men from the truck he’d passed. When he does go inside, their casual air is met by his knowing glance of faux bravado, after which he further underlines his faux implacable reserve by tossing cash at the bartender with a directive to buy the house a round of drinks. And this just after The Major (the town’s magistrate and resident authority figure) has once again shamed Tom Hedden, this time by declining his offer to front him a drink. Is this magnanimous David the same “principled intellectual” who refused that cigarette gesture back at the start? Indeed. And among his most treasured principles is restricting the use of money as a social weapon to those who can afford to decline a freebie. If you can’t beat ’em, buy ’em … or at least let them know you could. How very pacifistic and non-confrontational of him!

On a more basic scale, David is a self-involved, insecure asshole who prizes only the regard of other men. If you want to know who David really is in the world of social politics, you need only note when and how he uses his glasses. Hoffman and Peckinpah speak volumes with this prop, but they weave it into the narrative so quietly that its effect is mostly cumulative. Though he’s introduced without them, the opening sequence firmly establishes that David genuinely needs his glasses, because he dons them inside the pub so he can spy on Charlie and Amy. He also wears them to drive and he always wears them in and around the house, whether alone or with Amy. In public, however, and quite specifically in any situation where he’s facing other men, David takes them off and puts them away, as if to mask whatever weakness they might imply. What’s interesting about this is that he seems to lean on their authority-enhancing effect with his sexual partner, while reserving his bouts of vanity for those moments when he’s presenting himself to more physically imposing men. The saddest, funniest instance of this reflex is out on the hunt, where David initially attempts to shoot at birds without them, despite the fact that the other men have wandered off and presumably cannot see him. When he’s trying hardest to be a man’s man, he willfully handicaps himself.

That he alternates between considering the glasses a weapon and a liability is telling enough, but his chosen venue for which is which says more about David’s values than the whole of his spoken dialogue. For the younger, handsomer workmen, they’re a liability to be hidden, but for his meeting with Rev. Hood they’re kept on as an asset. He does remove them finally when he sits down to elaborate on his intellectual enterprises, but having already established the hierarchy by condescendingly offering money that’s been so greedily snatched up, David feels secure in his inevitable victory. In fact, his willingness to go mano a mano in the realm of ideas without benefit of glasses seems a smug expression of his contempt for the opposition; rather like an outlaw who drops his gun in a showdown just to mock the lack of threat.

With Amy, David removes them solely to sleep or have sex, and even then only when he’s prepared to direct the action himself. The rest of the time, he glares at her through those transparent little walls like a father reproaching a pesky child. There’s a great “glasses” moment between them late in the film, when Amy is sitting distraught in bed after the rape and David returns home from the hunt. He sits down, takes his glasses off and announces that he’s going to fire the workmen the next day. Desperately wounded and angry about her fate, Amy spews recriminations about David’s failure to confront them sooner about the murdered cat, though she doesn’t reveal a thing about what happened while he was gone. Outraged by her attack, David reaches for his glasses and slaps them back on before launching into a tirade about her childish antics having robbed him of the chance to confront the louts, then further berates her for her own cowardice in not confronting them herself.

Not only is his stern daddy act some seriously dirty pool, his counter-attack to her valid accusation is utter bullshit, because he’d pointedly waved off her suggestion to leave town while simultaneously insisting that he’d handle the cat confrontation himself. Amy had neither a voice nor a choice in the matter; such was his determination to stay in control of her while also proving that he wouldn’t run from them. And now, in their bedroom, he’s facing a woman whose wounds and anguish are patently visible (her face is clearly bruised), but he looks right through her because all he can see is his own humiliation and rage. She’s straining to tell him that their situation is desperate, but all he can hear is “I told you so,” which wouldn’t hurt half as much if he didn’t know that she was right. Instead of even trying to read her, he’s furious with her for so accurately reading him. Forget the carnage to come in the siege. This marriage is already a bloodbath.

There’s a marvelous moment at the midway point of the movie when David’s denial and self-loathing crash into one another quite spectacularly. When he opens the bedroom closet and discovers the strangled cat hanging from the lamp-cord, he stiffens and gathers himself, remaining with his back to Amy so that she cannot see him react with alarm. Then he turns and looks at her, breaking his gaze fairly quickly as if even that brief exchange of looks will reveal him beyond what is tolerable. He moves toward a chair and slides limply into it, apparently in need of support. Then he shrinks into himself, becoming smaller and smaller as his eyes widen blankly and he shakes his head no, as if to deny that the moment has even happened, let alone that he’s still in the room. Paralyzed, he remains silent, making no attempt to wave Amy away from the closet. When she opens it, we get her reaction in precisely the same shot as we got David’s, from inside the closet, with the dead cat hanging by its neck in the foreground. Amy screams without self-censorship or hesitation. She reacts with horror to a horrible sight, period. What’s wonderful about this juxtaposition is that it establishes beyond doubt the profound gap between their respective levels of voluntary intimacy with one another. David deliberately, consciously fumbles for an impassive mask and shuts down, while Amy simply is. His utter unwillingness to reveal himself to her is, under the circumstances, pathological to the point of hostility, though he’s reflexively diminishing his own physical stature to more easily hide inside of it. In every conceivable way, this scene is the centerpiece of the narrative, because it’s the moment when we know in our guts that their marriage is doomed, that the gauntlet’s been thrown, and that David’s mask will inevitably fall … though not immediately or all at once.

In the aftermath of that scene, there is a second, “later that night” scene in the bedroom where their fates are foreshadowed and sealed. Furious and heartbroken, Amy wants David to acknowledge the truth about this incident: it’s a message sent by one of the workmen so he’ll know they can get into his bedroom. Additional shrinkage ensues while David pretends not to believe what he so obviously must know to be true, instead remaining calm and dispassionate while suggesting that it really could have been anyone. Superficially, the scene plays as a frustrated wife urging her husband into action against the bullies, but what’s most alarming about David’s response is the depths to which he’ll stoop to pretend that he feels no anger or outrage. Even worse, he frames his calm demeanor with an air of moral superiority, as if he values justice too much to draw such harsh conclusions about those guys without further evidence and due process, though we — and David — have no illusions about their capacity for thuggery. He condescends to Amy’s emotions and instincts as if they are childish and inappropriate, all the while knowing that she’s hit a bulls-eye. In one fell swoop, he lies about his feelings, aligns with the bullies against her judgment, and questions her ethics in the bargain. Is this one of those “principled intellectual” things? Ah, well … no blood shed, no harm done.

Despite what I see as a reasonably clear and consistent depiction of David’s bullying nature, it’s still somewhat understandable that the film can be misread. Peckinpah doesn’t want to make this easy, after all, and a major tactic in his effort to keep the audience on edge is the severity of his narrative pruning. By the end of the film, the deliberate withholding of information amongst characters is a catalyst in the escalation of tensions, but it’s only in retrospect that you recognize just how much information Peckinpah has pointedly withheld from you, essentially placing the audience into circumstances similar to those of the principal characters. They know less than we do about a number of central events, because it’s our natural privilege as spectators to be omniscient. We know that Charlie and Norman raped Amy, but nobody else (beyond the three involved) does. We know that Henry has accidentally killed Janice, but nobody else does. We know there’s an intense rivalry between Charlie and Norman, but David and Amy don’t, etc. All of these things matter, and our knowledge played off against their ignorance is key to shaping our responses.

At the same time, however, we’re kept ignorant on so many important historical issues that it becomes impossible to feel absolutely certain that we’re reading the human dynamic with anything resembling accuracy. A good many things are hinted at but left unexplained. We see uneasy coexistence within the village, but we’re not privy to the history behind it. Henry Niles is — to our eye — a harmless simpleton, but he’s a major point of contention in the town. It’s suggested that he’s got a history of molesting young girls, and several characters (including Amy in the opening scene) complain about the fact that he has not been “put away.” Among the men of the town, there’s a whiff of class warfare behind the resentments, with the nattier dressers (Major Scott and John Niles) on one side, and the working-class men on the other. We know through dialogue that Tom Hedden has had numerous legal run-ins with Major Scott, and we also know that Norman was jailed for more than a year for what’s vaguely implied to have been a sexual assault.

During the last-act confrontation that climaxes in the accidental shooting of Major Scott, Tom sneers at him for protecting Henry all this time while he hadn’t hesitated to “put my Emma away.” We have no idea who this Emma may be or why she was put away, but the fact that the ruffian side of the pub is so thoroughly contemptuous of this man who represents “the law” indicates that they’re more than a little unsatisfied by the way he’s wielded his power. The class conflict is further underlined by the Major’s social interest in David (he hunts him down at the pub) and again later when David defends the injured Henry as “harmless,” but subsequently refuses to leave him alone in the house with Amy. In reality, that’s just an excuse David uses in the moment so he won’t have to leave the house, but Norman’s outrage at the apparent double-standard most definitely smacks of class resentment. Of course, Norman should know a double-standard when he sees one, particularly when he’s vehemently calling for justice against a suspected sexual predator mere hours after he’s viciously sodomized the lady of the house on the same sofa Henry currently occupies (the staging of this scene — with Henry on the sofa while Amy and her rapists eye one another from opposite sides of it — is exquisitely rich in tension).

This is the crux of Peckinpah’s narrative construct and it’s the means by which he ensures that menace hovers at the margins of every moment. We’re never truly on balance, because we know enough to know more than they know about some things, and we know enough to know who doesn’t know about some things, but we’re essentially stuck inside the scenes with the characters, trying to read their faces and body-language well enough to guess what the hell they’re really up to inside of their own heads. It’s a film full of gazes and glances that talk over the dialogue, which frequently feels like something the characters toss out as distractions to fill the void between them while they size each other up. Because it’s a movie led by one big movie star who’s surrounded by unknowns, our inclination is to align with Dustin Hoffman’s David. And because David seems — at first glance — to be more sophisticated and civilized than the backwater rubes of the village, we’re further inclined to view him as the protagonist; a hero set against a gang of villains whose brutishness is right there on the surface. We are trained to root for movie stars and we’re trained to look for counterpoints. Peckinpah knows this and he does want to exploit it, but only to the point where our discomfort at aligning ourselves with the David he reveals makes us queasy with doubt, if not shame. David is not a counterpoint to the louts; he’s a lout in sheep’s clothing. When he escalates the conflict in the final act, David says to Amy, “This is where I live. This is me.” And for once, he’s telling her the truth.

Time and again throughout the film, Peckinpah draws parallels between David and his adversaries, the most blatant of which is the crosscutting between Charlie’s rape of Amy and David’s long-awaited killing of the bird out on the moor. Not only does Peckinpah intercut shots of David getting ready for sex with shots of Charlie getting ready for rape, he mirrors the men’s actions and feelings quite specifically. As the initial rape reaches its conclusion, Amy’s head flops limply to one side while Charlie collapses onto her and expresses regret. Meanwhile, when David goes to retrieve his prey from the bushes, the bird’s death-throes cease as he picks it up, and its head flops lifelessly to the side, eliciting visible regret in David, who gently places the dead bird back atop the bushes and walks away. Having now proven to themselves that they can do what they felt they needed to do, the two men seem nearly as broken as their trophies. It’s a rare poignant moment tucked into an unforgiving film, but the underlying point seems clear: consideration of the fate of the objects of conquest was irrelevant to the test; it was always about the men against themselves and each other.

Peckinpah’s reputation as a manly man making manly movies about manly men really bit him on the ass when Straw Dogs was released, so primed are critics to blur the line between storyteller and advocate. For many a right-thinking, sensitive soul, this movie confirmed his misanthropic reverence for macho violence and his Neanderthal attitude toward women. It’s an odd way to read a film that — to my eye — unmasks misogyny for the juvenile, hypocritical insecurity-salve that it actually is, but the label endures to this day. Never mind that Amy’s character is the lone object of sympathy in the piece. If Peckinpah introduces her with a tit shot, his cards are already on the table. No need to wonder what, if anything, he meant by that choice in the bigger picture. And no need to think beyond whatever immediate salaciousness he’s implied with such a disrespectful viewpoint. She’s a slutty, braless nymph who’ll get what she’s got coming to her later, or at least we’re supposed to hope so.

What’s galling about this attitude is the notion that Peckinpah deliberately created a character who “asks for” or “deserves” an ugly fate, then served up that ugly fate for our popcorn-addled enjoyment. Try as I might, I’ve yet to unearth a scene wherein Amy says or does anything for which she deserves to be punished, let alone a scene wherein she deserves to be gang-raped by “friends,” belittled, dismissed and abused by her husband, terrorized by violent drunks, or abandoned amongst a sea of corpses while dumbstruck with trauma. What I see is a woman who speaks but is not listened to, who tries to become more adult but is treated like a child, who assumes that she’s safe among friends and with her husband but is dragged across rooms by her hair, slapped, punched and sexually objectified within a labyrinth of macho pissing matches.

Is going braless really a crime of such enormous magnitude? And is there no point at which the responsibility for men’s behavior and choices rests on their own shoulders? From the outset, Amy’s gravest sin is her effortless desirability. And yes, that opening shot of her breasts is a provocation. Peckinpah wants you to want her and knows that you will. But what you do with that wanting is all about you. It’s got nothing to do with Amy or with Susan George or with Peckinpah. The point at which anyone — be it you or Kael or the lecherous cretin in the seat behind you — deems her a slutty baby-doll who deserves to get what’s coming is the point where the viewer’s own misogyny overwhelms what’s on the screen. Blaming the director for making you feel something that’s not strictly dictated by the content or tone of his film is a weak-kneed bit of scapegoating in the face of uncomfortable thoughts.

Peckinpah knows what he’s really up to, and there are plentiful details sprinkled throughout to support a much sadder, more contemplative view of Amy’s fate. From scene one, David is condescending and dismissive toward the woman he supposedly loves. When she attempts to describe the book he’s come there to write, he cuts her off in mid-sentence with a “Good try …” blatantly expressing his disdain for her intelligence. Instead of climbing into the car to leave as she expects, he walks away without explanation, forcing her to ask repeatedly where he’s going (turns out that he’s going inside the pub to get a more candid view of her interactions with Charlie). At home, he overrules her intention to move a heater upstairs, complaining that he needs it more in his space, case closed. He’s patronizing when she’s trying to teach herself chess (deliberately messing with her at the point when she’s sure she’s got a good move). He puts off her sexual advances until he’s ready to direct the action and he seems self-conscious about their displays of affection in front of other men. He’s annoyed if she hangs around him in his study, but suspicious and confrontational if she goes outside to chat with the workmen. He drags his feet when she asks him to fix the toaster or calls him to dinner, but complains openly about unfinished household tasks he deems to be her purview. When he’s angry with her, he scolds her like a child. And when she needs him most, he abandons her emotionally or literally, so caught up is he in his own needs or preoccupations.

Theirs is a horrible, hurtful marriage, though it’s not technically “violent” until quite late in the movie. David seems to have married a beautiful, flirtatious, girlish woman only to hate her for being exactly what he thought he wanted. There’s a revealing moment during his contretemps with the pastor that cuts to the heart of his mixed feelings about having a trophy wife. David is attempting further one-upsmanship by describing his academic objective to Rev. Hood, but the holy man is so distracted by the sight of Amy mixing a drink that he’s obviously not even listening. The look on David’s face is priceless, as if Amy is a weapon so thoroughly unsuited to this exchange that she’s morphed into a liability and wrecked his shot at the intellectual knockout punch he was winding up to deliver. Immediately after they say their goodbyes, Peckinpah cuts to the Sumners preparing for bed, and Amy complains about how awful he’d been to the reverend. David responds with, “No … I like him. And his wife is very attractive.” It’s practically a non sequitur, except that it betrays the moment upon which David is still most focused: when Amy’s allure got the attention that he’d wanted for himself. Even when she’s doing nothing but being, she’s a bit of a thorn in his side. Again and again, Peckinpah shows David incapable of being happy with her as is. In fact, the one and only time that David is entirely loose and playful with Amy comes directly after he’s probed her for information about her past relationship with Charlie and she’s claimed that nothing sexual ever happened between them; a revelation that makes him positively giddy. He never comes close to that state again until the final shot of the movie, and Amy’s nowhere in the frame.

When it comes to the most vehement charges against Peckinpah’s supposed misogyny, the central point of focus is usually the rape scene, which is frequently described as too erotic to be anything but wish fulfillment for both the audience and Amy. Taken out of context, it may seem a difficult scene to defend, but why take it out of context? Amy has no reason to mistrust her ex-boyfriend Charlie, though she undoubtedly suspects that he’s visiting because he’s still attracted to her. She may even find his enduring interest intriguing enough to explore further by letting him in, but so what? Is there any preceding scene between them that should lead her to expect that he’ll rape her? Should those of us who’ve let ex-boyfriends into our homes without being raped be deemed unnaturally lucky? Subliminally disappointed? Peckinpah at his darkest is not half as misanthropic as those who assume she should have known what was coming as soon as she opened that door. Ditto for those who view Amy’s attempts to stop Charlie’s advances as coy ways of saying “yes” by feigning “no.” Kael went so far as to claim the following:

… We can see that she’s asking for it, she’s begging for it; that her every no means yes. The rape scene says that women really want the rough stuff, that deep down they’re little beasts asking to be made submissive.

It’s a baffling assertion, considering that Amy doesn’t at all appear to want the rough stuff. In fact, she’s in agony while being slapped down and dragged by her hair. She does beg him to stop. She does resist. She looks utterly horrified. She’s weeping. And it’s only when Charlie threatens to hit her again that she submits. (Wait a minute … I thought she wanted the rough stuff?) And when Charlie does commence with the rape, Amy never quits crying. When we first get her POV, she’s focused on the fireplace, as if looking for a mental exit through which she might better endure the inevitable. And when she does shift gears into the part where she seemingly enjoys the rape, it’s commenced with her whispered plea to Charlie to go “easy.” If she likes the rough stuff so much, why not keep fighting? Why not give him more reason to hit and restrain and pummel her? What Kael seems to miss in this deeply ambiguous scene is that Amy effectively seizes the power from Charlie by submitting. Not only does she lessen the damage done to her body, she converts his cruelty into sympathy; she reminds him that he actually cares for the person inside of the body he’s assaulting. And then she asks him to comfort her, which he does. Only then — after the rape is finished and he’s humbled — does she appear to be responding to him emotionally. Not once during this scene is Amy not in tears. And not once does she show a preference for the rough stuff. That Peckinpah has used their mutual history to allow for ambiguity is brave because it’s so disturbing. In addition, he builds to this scene from a position of sustained tension in general, assuring an erotic component by virtue of the eroticism inherent in sustained tension itself. That the scene inevitably plays as both heated and repulsive is the point, really, because your response is less about what Amy wants to happen to Amy than what you might want to happen to Amy.

Blame Peckinpah if it makes you sleep better at night, but you were the one who was aroused, and it’s not as if he’s encouraging you to be proud of it. In fact, he hedges his bets and underlines his main point by having Norman arrive and sodomize Amy while Charlie holds her down. Yes, Norman’s carrying a weapon, but even after he sets it aside, Charlie feels compelled to do right by his fellow man in the moment and facilitate the assault. When push comes to shove, failing to act as “one of the boys” is at least incrementally worse than betraying the girl you think you still love. Is there a more nauseating moment in the movie than Peckinpah’s close-up of Charlie’s finger tenderly caressing Amy’s cheek while she howls in agony? Not for my money. Exactly which terrible thing is Peckinpah saying about women with that shot? And later when she’s sitting wounded in bed, furious and desperate about her husband’s refusal to recognize her pain, is she secretly relishing the exciting afternoon she had with the boys? And the next night at the church social, is Amy’s tearful breakdown to flashbacks of Charlie’s assault meant to be read as a wistful bit of swooning over how much she enjoyed the rough stuff?

What place do these scenes have in Peckinpah’s misogynistic world-view? Are they insincere, winking palliatives placed there to cover his ass, or do they count as part of the movie? Perhaps I’m being naive, but I’ll afford him the benefit of the doubt, because so much of the movie is about the undeserved, systematic objectification of Amy. Besides, in spite of assertions that Amy is a bubble-headed sex toy who digs it when men force her into service, she must be smarter than she looks, because she seems to have grown a lot between the opening scene and the last act. By the time she enters the church social, she’s no longer relaxed and comfortable in that gorgeous body. Now she’s stiff, closed-off and drawn in on herself. Plus, she’s finally donned a bra. Hurrah! On top of that, her self-destructive tendency to afford trust to the men around her has morphed into just the sort of blanket paranoia that nice girls undeserving of rape should so obviously embrace. Contrary to David’s skepticism, there may yet be hope for Amy’s chess game.

And finally, there is the last act siege at the house, about which Kael wrote the following:

Not surprisingly, the audience cheers David’s kills; it is, after all, a classic example of the worm turning. It’s mild-mannered Destry putting on his guns, it’s the triumph of a superior man who is fighting for basic civilized principles over men who are presented as mindless human garbage.

Setting aside my own anecdotal experience of audience reactions, which — during two public screenings — failed to include any cheering from the assembled masses, this reading is so wrongheaded that it makes my skull ache to imagine where it could possibly come from. The most distressing aspect of Kael’s assertion is that she seems to have bought into the ruse of David’s claim that he’s acting on principle by defending Henry Niles (not to mention the ruse that David is “mild-mannered” or “superior”). Two nights prior to this, David belittled Amy for assuming that these boys may have had something to do with the murdered cat, but now he somehow knows that they’re intending to beat Henry Niles to death over an unsolved mystery? What exactly has changed to allow for such a leap? Ah, yes. They took him hunting and humiliated him by abandoning him out on the moor. Two of them also raped Amy, but David doesn’t know that, so it doesn’t count. All he knows is that they openly rejected him when he attempted to bond on their terms. Meanwhile, they’re claiming that a teenage girl is missing after being seen with Henry, and his wife is displaying a visible fear of Henry as well, so it’s probable that there’s something amiss with his houseguest, even if what that is can’t yet be known.

Rather than standing on principle, David is using Henry as his excuse to confront the men and deny them something that they want. His big “stand” is an elaborate bit of payback for their rejection of him, and he only makes that stand because he’s already called for help and believes that the doctor and the law will soon arrive like the cavalry and justify his position. David doesn’t know Henry to be innocent, but he can plainly see how much these guys want to get ahold of him, and he relishes having the power to say no. One can only wonder how he’d react to their request for Henry if they’d embraced him on the hunt, but I’m guessing he’d defer to them in a second if they hadn’t betrayed and humiliated him just yesterday. It’s a reasonable conclusion to draw, after all, because he certainly didn’t go on that shooting expedition to confront them about Amy’s dead cat (otherwise known as “the violence David will allow against this house”).

What makes this circumstance even more telling about David’s motives is that Peckinpah plays it off of the similarly trumped-up motivations of the locals he’s confronting. Prior to their arrival at the house, we’ve seen the ongoing humiliation of Tom Hedden, starting from the first scene in the pub and continuing through the reverend’s vocal mockery of him at the church social. And now he and his boys are using wafer-thin evidence of an imperiled Janice as an excuse to get liquored-up and beat the crap out of the Niles brothers. When Bobby runs in to tell them that he saw her walk off with Henry, they don’t immediately go in search of her. Instead, they take the opportunity to mug Henry’s brother in “we warned you!” fashion, and then retire to the pub to swill a bunch of booze in preparation for their expected confrontation with Henry. Clearly, Tom and the lads spent years waiting for a good reason to pummel these guys, and they’re going to make the most of it now that one’s come. If they thought Janice was in serious danger, wouldn’t they be out searching en masse instead of leaving her rescue to the teenaged Bobby? And even when they reach the house and end up in a standoff with David, there’s the distinct air of a lark about their mood, including the continued swilling of booze and the giggling and riding of tricycles and whatnot.

Perhaps because the resolution is so absolute and ghastly, there’s a tendency for people to lose sight of what actually happens during the final act. Amy’s demand that Henry be ejected from the house comes long before the locals arrive or there’s a siege in progress, but David ignores her visible fear, and mocks her for expressing it. And the local men do not head up to the house in order to attack David and Amy. They’re looking for Henry. When they arrive, it’s only old Tom who’s out of control. In lieu of storming the house, Charlie actually suggests that because they know the American, they can go inside and handle the situation peacefully. When David takes his stand against giving up Henry, they push him, but they don’t brawl with him, even though it’s a three-to-one advantage and they’re already inside the house. Instead, they leave when reminded that the police have been summoned. Once outside, it’s not the younger men who are visibly itching for an immediate fight, it’s Tom; and their escalation of the confrontation is largely in deference to his drunken refusal to back down. Meanwhile, a similar dissention is happening inside of the house, where Amy is arguing to give up Henry, and David is smacking his lips at the knowledge that he’s going to win this one as soon as Major Scott arrives. There are two separate dramas in play, each featuring a long-suffering, humiliated, impotent bully who desperately wants his satisfaction now, and what follows is less a deliberate assault on the “civilized” by the “uncivilized” than the messy result of two frustrated men refusing to back down when they’ve stumbled onto what they perceive to be righteousness.

When the Major finally arrives, David shifts into self-satisfied-preening mode, sensing that victory is nigh. Alas, what follows is Tom and the Major scuffling over the gun out back while David and Amy watch through the kitchen window. The longstanding bad blood rises to the surface in their struggle, and the Major is killed, though obviously accidentally. When we cut back inside to David and Amy, Peckinpah stages a reaction shot that’s as succinct an expression of this marital dynamic as could be: David recoils from the window and turns his back on Amy; his face frozen in abject terror. Once he’s gathered himself enough to register what just happened and react, he turns back toward the window and leans to look out, Amy once again by his side. Suddenly, he erupts in a rage … screaming, “Bastards! Bastards!” at the men outside while reflexively raising his arm and brutally slapping Amy aside. It’s a stunning moment if you notice precisely how it plays out, because nothing motivates his slap except the combination of his rage and her proximity.

And from there, what follows is David’s relentless escalation of the warfare both inside and outside of the house. The more terrified Amy gets under clearly terrifying circumstances, the more he seems to despise her. Contrary to how the events are typically recollected, it’s David who first draws blood in his battle against the invaders. Where their killing of the Major was accidental, his killing is determined and deliberate, based entirely on his belief that once they cross the line and enter willingly, his actions are fully justified. And even though we sympathize on a gut level, it’s readily apparent that David almost wants them to keep coming now. When Charlie tries to convince Amy to let him in and defuse the situation by removing Henry, David stops her. She threatens to leave, and he pretends to acquiesce to her demand, then slaps her to the ground and drags her by the hair, threatening to break her neck if she opens that door. It’s a direct echo of Charlie’s earlier assault, except that David is even scarier. You don’t doubt for a second that he could kill her; nor do you doubt that he’d relish the moment if she gave him a reason to do it.

As dreadful as the various acts of carnage turn out to be, it’s the drama between David and Amy that plays as most horrific. A big part of the reason we root to keep the thugs outside is our natural inclination to protect Amy, particularly in light of what she’s already experienced at their hands. But protecting Amy is the last thing on David’s mind. Her safety is little more than by default, a function of her position on his team. In view of the set-up that leads to this bloody showdown, the siege exists not to turn David into a man Peckinpah can finally respect for his willingness to get violent, but to unmask the depth of his contempt for the woman he claims to love. When it’s eventually down to David versus the last remaining thug, he’s utterly dependent on Amy to save him by shooting the other man as they scuffle. She hesitates just long enough to register whether she might have another choice beyond killing, then finally pulls the trigger, though it clearly horrifies her to do so. And what is David’s response? He glares at her reproachfully for being so slow, then climbs the stairs and pats her on the cheek with withering condescension, despite the fact that she’s cowering and deeply traumatized. He continues upstairs to collect Henry, then casually puts on a jacket as he’s leaving to drive him back into town. Almost as an afterthought, he turns and asks Amy if she’ll be okay. Still in shock, she nods silently while David walks away … abandoning her amid the corpses and destruction without so much as a second thought.

This is supposed to depict the triumph of macho prowess over mealy-mouthed intellectualism? This is a celebration of a weakling finally becoming a man? Surely Peckinpah was a skillful enough director to have conjured palpable triumph if he’d wanted us to feel triumphant. Instead, the ending is ugly and unsettling, with Amy left alone in devastation and David driving away into darkness with a smile so inappropriate to the results of his “stand” that we cannot help but wonder what the fuck? If Peckinpah truly wanted to make Death Wish, he’d have made Death Wish. But Straw Dogs isn’t a vengeance orgy at all unless you’re not quite paying attention. The locals aren’t avenging Janice’s murder and David isn’t avenging Amy’s rape because you cannot avenge events you don’t know exist. Peckinpah goes out of his way to construct a showdown without a shred of genuine justification, letting the audience sift through the facts for themselves if they need or want to justify their own bloodlust from the comfort of their seats. He can’t have simply failed to notice the gaps in logical justification because they’re just too enormous. Consider the moment when Charlie is armed and chooses to kill Norman instead of taking Norman’s suggestion that he kill David so they can both rape Amy during the siege. David’s immediate reaction to Charlie saving Amy is not to thank him or reconsider the situation, but to attack and kill him.

This cannot be empty action staged solely for our mindless pleasure, because it would be so much easier to stage it differently and guarantee our mindless pleasure. Let David know about the rape. Have Charlie turn the gun on David. Show David comforting and defending his wife during the siege. Eliciting unequivocal male-fantasy-fueled cheers from movie patrons is not beyond the skills of the average hack, so how did Peckinpah fail so miserably to insure pleasure or the comfort of certainty from all that pain? Instead, we’re kept off balance throughout and are left with events that would be all but impossible to celebrate except by deliberately ignoring what’s been shown, and by deliberately ignoring our own unease as the credits roll. I’m fascinated by people who praise his ability to disturb them while simultaneously implying that they’re the only ones savvy enough to be disturbed; or rather, the only ones savvy enough to be disturbed in a way that inspired them to wonder what he was up to in the process. The rest of us rubes are too stupid to escape his diabolical trap unscathed, of course, so thank god they’re around to sound the alarm lest we’re moved to party in the aisles when the lights come up. Vigilant opposition to reckless pandering is legitimate critical turf, of course, but it’s disingenuous (and more than a tad ironic) to frame that complaint with such blatant pandering to the proto-PC “humanism” of the same smug elitists Peckinpah probably aimed to rattle in the first place.

Mine is something of an eccentric perspective, I suppose, but some of the filmmakers most routinely labeled “misanthropic” or “misogynist” strike me as uncommonly brave and thoughtful (not to mention creative) in their explorations of disrespect toward women. Accident of proximity and the shared spotlights of controversy and banning have forever linked Straw Dogs to that other 1971 contemplation of violence, A Clockwork Orange, though I’d imagine that Kubrick and Peckinpah were both bright enough to shrug off such comparisons as glib and superficial, seeing as their respective films could not be more different in form or function. But I doubt Kubrick shrugged off Straw Dogs, because its central conceit was so lovingly cribbed when he adapted The Shining a decade later. Again we have the tale of a disintegrating marriage masquerading as a genre piece; and again we have a “loving” husband who goes through a transformation to bullying killer that’s no substantial transformation at all. Toss in the isolated family apparently besieged by local monsters, add a dash of “wife whose style and habits might be seen to bring her misery upon herself,” and you’ve got Straw Dogs as a black-comic supernatural thriller. Oh … and just for good measure, cast a massively famous, charismatic movie star as the husband and surround him with virtual unknowns, all the better to confuse the audience as to when to cut bait and recognize the protagonist for the petty creep that he actually is. Both films are deeply sad without being sentimental or maudlin, but you’ve got to cut through the surface to get at the real stories being told about the humdrum, bloodless violence that sometimes passes itself off as love. Peckinpah did something interesting enough to merit homage from the ultimate in iconoclastic control-freak directors; a claim (or shame) few others can make. He also made a movie whose power to grip and disturb has not waned in more than three decades; an even rarer feat.

When Peckinpah set out to make Straw Dogs, he simply had to see something of David in himself, even if he didn’t really want to. For such a blatantly fictional construct that’s pitched so high, its emotions ring uncomfortably true. We’ve all been bullied and we’ve all been the bully at least once in our lives. The longing to control how others regard us drives us to acquire the means to dominate, and it’s this effort that makes us violent in ways both petty and profound. Displacing long-harbored resentments onto those weaker than ourselves is a game we carry from playgrounds to boardrooms to bedrooms, not to mention street fights and battlefields. David believes that the trappings of affluence and sophistication make him better than the unwashed thugs, and he can’t stop himself from expecting them to agree. The more they seem not to, the harder he tries to appease them into changing their minds. He’s no pacifist; he’s a quisling wannabe. And it’s Amy who gets sacrificed in the aborted bargain. If there’s a more scathing, unyielding deconstruction of the darkest edge of male social politics on a movie screen, I’ve yet to run into it, and I’m not sure I’d want to. And if Peckinpah also implicates himself with remarkable precision, that’s hardly accidental. This is no celebration; it’s a dirge.