The end of Straw Dogs has Dustin Hoffman’s David Sumner driving an uncredited David Warner’s Henry Niles back to town after the climatic showdown in the Sumner house. Henry tells David, “I don’t know my way home.” To which David responds, “That’s okay. I don’t either.” This final exchange sums up the entirety of what Straw Dogs conveys. At the end of the day, just what are we?
There will be spoilers here.
Prior to my viewing of Straw Dogs, the only film by Sam Peckinpah I’ve seen was The Wild Bunch. I took that film as a more visceral version of a Leone western. However having only seen it once, I didn’t get the themes that are prevalent with Peckinpah’s work. This film is rife with controversy and complications and interpretations. It is not an easy watch. Things do not resolve themselves. People are not good and don’t nescesarily become better people by the end of this.
This film is certainly one that earned its controversial status. It raises questions. Even if you answer one question, you may not answer the next question the same way. Is Straw Dogs a condemnation of violent masculinity? One may interpret it that way. Or is it a celebration of that? It may be as well. Is Peckinpah blaming women for the violence that occurs against them? It seems that way, at least to me it did. Early on David asks his wife Amy (a heartbreaking performance by Susan George) why doesn’t she wear a bra if she doesn’t want the leering eyes of her ex-boyfriend and his cohorts focused on her chest. This moment is actually one of many that show her husband is not only meek, but part of the overall problem. He disrespects his wife at times and belittles her. He blames her sexual freedom for the attention she did not ask for. By time we reach the climax, you’ll see David is no better than the brutes who invade their home. It just took him a little longer to get there.
The controversial rape of Amy is still a discussion point to this day. Becuase of how Peckinpah filmed the scene, there are indicators that Amy at first refuses but then acquiesces. Now I do not see it that way. I saw a woman trying to cope with the violation being committed against her. The scene is brutal and uncomfortable and I actually feel uncomfortable trying to discuss it. Yet this is film criticism and I’d be remiss to not mention it at all despite its notorious reputation.
This is a very complicated film, directed by a very complicated man. Did Peckinpah hate the violence within himself? Did he allow that to manifest in this film? Does he think David is a hero or antihero? So many questions. It’s fitting that this film came out in 1971, the same year as fellow controversial director Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Straw Dogs, like that film are not easily watched. Yet both films hold a mirror to the ghastly primal nature of humanity and at the very least, make you look inside and question just what are you. Straw Dogs, structurally is a time bomb, ticking away during its runtime until it explodes in the climax.
Is it just a matter of time for any of us? Just another of the many questions it forever brings. Endless questions and endless discussion.