Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Vol 35 no. 18. 27th July 1972
Sam Pekinpah's Straw Dogs is one of those films that crop up from time to time (cropped down in this case), and in so doing inspire a certain amount of controversy, sometimes acrimonious and generally spurious. (Last Year at Marienbad and Blow Up are two others of this ilk). Sound and fury rages in all quarters. In a hotel two gentlemen discuss whether the film is 'fascist', with no definition of the term offered by either, and no obvious indication that they have common understanding of its meaning. Elsewhere the violence in the film is questioned: is it 'obscene', Excessive' or 'justified'? ! have even heard an earnest debate as to whether or not David (Dustin Hoffman) returns to his wife after delivering halfwit Niles to the authorities, with the unequivocal implication that this was the crux of the matter; that an answer to the question, if found, would give some insight as to 'what the film was all about'.
The reader may gather from the jaundiced tone of the above report that I am not in favour of these blatherings. This is true, but not to the extent of totally excluding or ignoring such discussion. The point is that intellectual contemplation of what Peckinpah is trying to say has its place, but I believe it should not supersede other considerations. Is the film exciting, boring, horrifying? Are the characters and settings convincing within their own context. Is the work a good film qua cinema? - a primary emphasis on the aesthetic rather than the moral qualities. A precipitous and enthusiastic reading of the thematic material inevitably extracts more than is actually there, to the detriment of one's appreciation of the film as 'story telling through the artistic discipline of cinematic technique', liven among those who hate Straw Dogs there is some consensus that it is a superior piece of film-making, although they will usually admit this only when prodded. Their attentions are concentrated elsewhere, on the immorality, the 'gratuitous violence' etc. etc. Peckinpah has indeed done a superb job, better in many ways than his work in The Wild Bunch. The action is better 'orchestrated' and he resists the temptation to dwell on slow motion shots at the expense of the narrative pace. As in the previous film the switches to slow motion nearly always accompany violent death, but in Straw Dogs these shots are momentary, sometimes almost subliminal. The effect of this device is to reinforce our awareness of what has happened, without retarding the frenzied action within which they occur. There is one instance of their use in a situation where the setting is not one of violence but one of jovial camaraderie. At the church social Amy (Susan George) is plagued by memories of her rape - a series of extremely short slow motion flashbacks intrude on this otherwise pleasant scene, forcing us to share her unease and rising panic. This is about the most effective use of the device that I have seen. Throughout the film there are countless examples of Peckinpah the master technician at work. These extend to the editing, which creates a montage of savagery in the later scenes, and imposes overall the juxtaposition of contrasting worlds, that of David the bumbling egghead on one hand and the rough, down-to-earth yokels on the other. Amy is straddled somewhat uncomfortably between the two. This contrast gains force when one examines the ambivalence in the loyalties of the audiences laughing at David's fumblings in the early sections of the film, when the locals seem at least to know how to manage in the world, and cheering him on later as he slaughters them. Presumably Peckinpah achieves this change in attitude by showing that David is actually rather cool-headed when it comes to the ultra-manly business of killing people. Peckinpah is aided considerably by photographer John Coquillan who lights and shoots the night scenes of violence with consummated skill and extracts some beautiful colours from the unyielding, dingy English landscape. Jerry Fielding's fine music adds its own quota of menace. The acting is generally excellent, especially from the English contingent of Susan George (a subtle exposition of nubility), David Warner (Niles), T.P.Mckenna (the beak) Peter Vaughan (splendidly overblown as the nasty old man Tom) and the sundry village bucks. I particularly like Colin Well-find (Rev. Hood) who did such a good job as the school teacher in Kes. His short exchange with Hoffman when they first meet is a cameo to be remembered.
Hoffman's contribution as the film's pivotal figure is as we would expect from an actor of his stature, but I can't help feeling that the character, as conceived by Peckinpah and played by Hoffman, is not entirely satisfactory in the context of this story, and must agree with John Simon when he writes, "in this part a more neutral figure, scholarly and aloof but not infantile or even doltish in appearance, would have been vastly preferable". Perhaps 'vastly' is an overstatement, but there is something unsettling in the way Hoffman trips and stumbles about like the proverbial 'absent-minded professor'.
Peckinpah is not particularly noted as a lover of the human race, and Straw Dogs may very well be his major essay in misanthropy. It's a long way from that gentle idyllic salute to an era now past, Guns In The Afternoon (still my favourite Peckinpah movie), to the sour vision of The Wild Bunch and this latest film. If he can be said to be making any point at all, I suppose Peckinpah is saying that the Hoffman character lives according to his own rules in his own private world, but finds that in order to survive (or just to win the respect of his wife) he must play the game according to the rules of a hostile environment, the harsh world outside the comfortably familiar symbols of his astral physics. Of course Hoffman could have survived by handing Niles over to his drunken pursuers but, curiously, that's not playing the game either, at least not the game the audience believes in and has been waiting for. In a cool, carefully constructed ballet of slaughter the inevitable lines implied by our rules are logically drawn.
The violence in Straw Dogs is exciting rather than nauseating, exciting because it's so beautiful and there's so much of it, because much of it is perpetrated by the unexpectedly inventive Hoffman, and because it's in defence of 'his' property or his 'rights as a man'. It doesn't matter which - both are products of our rules. Much of it is openly comic. The attackers cavort drunkenly around on kids' tricycles while Hoffman, inside his castle, plots their grisly fates. The partial disappearance of Tom's foot is another jolly jape. It is precisely this balance of comedy, beauty and blood which seduces us into accepting Peckinpah's view of ourselves. On reflection, the seduction may be found disagreeable as a triumph of brute force over intellect, but there is no doubting that it works when we are under its spell. This, together with the film's technical achievements, is why Straw Dogs is such a brilliant success and such a splendid movie.