A movie deemed so disturbing it was only released in the UK in its entirety in 2002, Straw Dogs concerns American mathematician David (Dustin Hoffman) and his wife Amy (Susan George), who move back to her fictional hometown of Wakely, Cornwall and face increasing hostility from the locals. Naturally, these actions escalate in their intensity and the aggression culminates in a showdown between the young couple and the locals at their farmstead.
Director Sam Peckinpah is no stranger to controversy, having made blood-soaked Western The Wild Bunch two years previously. However, the negative attention Straw Dogs received buried it, despite an overwhelmingly positive reception from critics. Many took offence at the repellent scene where George’s character is raped by two of the locals, the main point of discussion being that there are moments towards the beginning of the scene where it appears she may be enjoying the ordeal, one of the rapists being an ex-boyfriend of hers. Peckinpah was unfairly branded a misogynist for his handling of the material, although many overlooked the fact that the scene very quickly descends into horror for the female character and remains shocking and very hard to watch to this day.
So much discussion of the film is based on that scene alone, in fact, that the rest of the movie is disappointingly overlooked; a shame since Straw Dogs has so much more to offer than shock factor alone. Hoffman gives one of his best performances as the beleaguered intellectual, constantly at odds with the inhabitants of a foreign land, and makes his descent into violence in the film’s final act all the more believable for his quiet restraint in the rest of the running time. The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent, and the script retains the power and well-rounded characterisation of Gordon Williams’ source novel The Siege of Trencher’s Farm.
Though the film may appear a little dated when viewed through modern eyes, and some of the character motives may appear extreme at times, the drama is thoroughly absorbing, and the tension more palpable and scenario more disquieting than any number of the glut of home invasion thrillers released in subsequent decades. There has been no better study in alienation than when David is driving a local man home in the final scene. The local says he doesn’t know his way home, and David turns to him and replies “That’s ok. I don’t either”.
Straw Dogs, directed by Sam Peckinpah, is available on Blu-ray disc and DVD from Fremantle Media, Certificate 18.