By Brian Lafferty
September 14, 2011 (San Diego) – To me, the most important part of the film is the first few minutes. At least 90 times out of 100 it’s during that time when I can tell if a movie will be good or bad.
I knew what I was in for once the ominous horns from Jerry Fielding’s score trumpeted at the start of Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. The sound of those horns created a cloud of uneasiness that hung over me long after the opening credits. Straw Dogs is a powerful movie that never lets up until the last shot.
David Sumner is an American mathematician who is fed up with the sociopolitical upheaval in the States and moves to England with his British wife, Amy (Susan George). He doesn’t fit in and the local men working on his house are prejudiced against him. Among them is Charlie (Del Henney), Amy’s jealous old flame. When a local idiot accidentally kills a teenage girl, Charlie and the other locals attempt to take over the house and get him.
The shockingly violent climax (even by today’s standards) blew me away but it was the deeply piercing character study that shook me the hardest. In order for this movie to work, co-writer Sam Peckinpah and Dustin Hoffman needed to create a character that, at the outset, you never believe would ever repeatedly bash a man’s head in with a blunt object.
It works. David is old-fashioned in both wardrobe and values. He’s as mild-mannered as a person can get and socially awkward. At times he’s so absorbed in his work that he even tells his wife, “I love you, Amy, but I want you to leave me alone.”
Then he undergoes a transformation. Or maybe he was always like that on some level, only he kept it bottled up. Either way, watching the climactic showdown and the outpouring of his true colors was like seeing a two-liter bottle of Diet Coke filled with over a dozen pieces of Mentos.
Surprisingly, Susan George’s performance throughout the entire film matches that of Hoffman, but in different ways. She’s alternately free-spirited, loose, afraid, frustrated, unsatisfied, mad, and tense: and she scores on all of them like Robin Hood at an archery match.
The rape sequence is tough to watch. Partially it’s because this innocent woman becomes victimized, but also because of the acting of George, Kenney, and Ken Hutchison (playing Norman, the second rapist). Charlie is unsure of his actions, doubting himself as he forces himself on her. Amy is scared and violated but then at times she looks like she enjoys it. It isn’t genuine enjoyment, though. She’s clearly conflicted before realizing she’s being violated.
Then a smiling, rifle-wielding Norman Scutt comes in, forcing himself on Amy, perversely enjoying himself. Charlie’s shocked, surprised, and scared expression makes it clear to us and to Charlie that what he did was wrong. The rapes aren’t very explicit, as mostly Amy’s face is shown. But Amy’s face, especially during the second rape, is one that you simply cannot unsee or unthink no matter how hard you try.
Peckinpah’s films are notable for their brief average shot length. Peckinpah’s three editors (among them future director Roger Spottiswoode) use the editing to subtly increase the intensity of the emotional and physical conflict. The rapid-fire cuts are rarely noticeable, and when they are, it’s only when Peckinpah has something to say.
During the church scene, for example, the fast-paced editing parallels Amy’s state of mind. Brief shots of the rape scene are interspersed among quick cuts of children and people blowing party favors, having a good time, and eating ice cream. The shots allow just enough time to see what’s going. They rhythm establishes what Peckinpah tries to communicate about her emotional state.
The Blu-Ray contains no special features. It doesn’t even have a menu; it just begins with the movie. The transfer is impressive, although that’s not saying much considering a lot of the movie features lots of whites and grays in the color palette and sets.