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Featured Blu-ray Review: Straw Dogs

September 6th, 2011

Straw Dogs - Blu-ray - Buy from Amazon

To call Sam Peckinpah a controversial director is an understatement. He made several films that focused on the themes of violence and nihilism and several of his films were attacked for the brutality they displayed. Straw Dogs is among those films. However, I've reviewed a couple films this Labor Day weekend that were controversial for the level of violence in them, but now seem rather tame. Will the same happen for Straw Dogs? And will this destroy the film's power? Or make it more accessible to the average moviegoer?

The Movie

Dustin Hoffman and Susan George star as David and Amy Sumner. He's American, but before the events of the film, they had moved from the States to the small English village where she grew up, in order to get away from the political protests on campus. Once in England, it doesn't take long before David starts to have trouble with the locals. He's an intellectual, he doesn't like conflict and he doesn't get along with the pub crowd. There's also trouble on the home front, as David and Amy's relationship begins to suffer. He wants her to be the traditional wife cleaning and cooking and the like, but she is more modern and liberated. Also, if he wants her to do the cooking and cleaning, then he should do the traditional male household chores of fixing stuff, and he's not exactly a handyman.

Amy runs into a number of her old friends, including Charlie Venner, Amy's possible ex-boyfriend. There's some ambiguity regarding their past relationship. He thinks they were in some relationship, but she dismisses it. Charlie even offers to help with fixing up their place and David accepts, as the guy fixing it now is taking his sweet time and is not exactly the friendliest person. Charlie and his friends are not much better. The conflict escalates and Amy pleads with David to fire them. However, being non-confrontational, he instead tries to win them over by going hunting with them.

This is where the film takes a dark turn and also arrives in spoiler territory, so be warned. On the other hand, the next part is also the most infamous part of the movie and even if you've never seen Straw Dogs, you probably know what's coming. While hunting, the men trick David and leave him stranded in the wild. Most return to town, but Charlie goes to the Sumner home, where he first talks to Amy and then rapes her. Norman Scutt, one of the workers employed by David and Amy, also arrives and forced Charlie at gun point to hold Amy down while he rapes her a second time. A lot of the controversy surrounding this film involves this scene, which is not surprising, as it was quite graphic for 1971. However, a lot of critics thought Sam Peckinpah was implying that Amy enjoyed being raped, and this part I don't get. I didn't get that impression. I don't think it was ambiguous. She fought back and only stops when Charlie threatens to "reave her", which is an archaic English term for pillage, as in "rape and pillage". Her choices were either be raped, or be violently raped. Just because she choose the former doesn't mean she was enjoying it.

While I think the film was unfairly attacked for that scene, there were some other problems. For instance, David and Amy's relationship was dysfunctional in a way that hurt the narrative. And then the way he finally snaps and is forced to take violent action against the attackers didn't quite seem right. It was as if this change happened more because the plot demanded it, rather than an organic result of the events up to that point. His actions also became erratic and contradictory. He was willing to use deadly force to protect his home from the outside attacks, but was less willing to use force when Henry Niles, the man he was protecting, attacked his wife. Furthermore, he threatened to kill his wife if she didn't do what he said. You could argue it was the stress of the moment, but he was still able to think calmly enough to boil cooking oil, set up a trap, etc. Additionally, too many of the villagers were little more than one-dimensional villains. The violent outburst by Tom Hedden at the pub early in the film should have gotten him a night in a drunk tank, at the very least. And when the attack began to turn deadly, a couple remained caricatures. After Major John Scott was accidentally shot, it would have been a good time to take off the clown nose and stop riding around on tricycles. If they were too drunk to do that, they were too drunk to stand in a vertical position. It really hurt the realism in the movie, and this film needed realism to avoid being exploitation.

Overall, while I don't think the film is a classic, it is still a very good exploration of violence and how far someone can be pushed before they snap. The performances by Dustin Hoffman and Susan George are great and I do recommend watching it.

The Extras

There are no extras on the Blu-ray, not unless you count the trailer / TV spots. As for the technical presentation, well, it was a relatively low-budget film shot 40 years ago, so one can't expect it to shine on high definition. There are no compression issues, there is no print damage to distract you, the grain is a little heavy at times, but at least they didn't scrub the film clean with DNR. The audio is best described as uncomplicated. The dialogue is clear, but the surround sound speakers are mostly underused. Given the age of the film, unless they did a full frame-by-frame restoration, this is as good as it will ever look or sound.

The Verdict

Straw Dogs is a film that is worth watching, but the featureless Blu-ray is not worth paying $17 for, at least in my opinion.

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