A brilliant but apprehensive mathematician and his beautiful wife retreat to an old farmhouse in the English countryside to escape the political strife that they encountered in America. After settling into their new home, their marriage continues to falter as Amy begs for attention while David remains fixed on his work. Meanwhile, the lazy locals that have been hired to complete work on the house have taken a notice to Amy's liberated feminism, and their incendiary behavior finally causes David to snap into a rage of primal violence and retribution.
Sam Peckinpah continues to break the mold of classic cinema in STRAW DOGS, which has been both hailed and criticized for its extreme depictions of rape and violence. These arguments are not entirely unfounded, when the film features an ambiguous rape sequence that has long been the source of controversy. In addition to Peckinpah's depictions of male savagery, STRAW DOGS would seem to lend itself to a misogynistic interpretation of events. A surface level reaction such as this only serves to discredit the carefully crafted characters, growing tension, and psychological breakdown that the film represents.
From the opening scenes, STRAW DOGS maintains a constant sense of unease that continues to build until the thrilling climax. This is can be seen in every single element of the film, from the key editing to the ways the characters interact with each other and through to the specific sights and sounds that Peckinpah chooses to include in order to keep his viewer on the knife's edge. There are countless exchanges and dynamics that must be examined to fully appreciate the complex psychology behind the plot. On one level, Peckinpah deconstructs the marital problems between his lead characters, problems which manifest in subtle and not so subtle ways on screen. Then there is the recurring theme of courage and what it means to be a man, which is constantly reproached both in David and Amy's arguments and in the way that David chooses to defend himself when facing the boorish thugs.
Dustin Hoffman and Susan George are each brilliant in their own unique ways. They are entirely believable as a young married couple, despite their many differences. Hoffman is timid and awkward throughout most of the picture, but there are slight cracks that occur mainly after Amy has pushed his buttons that will foreshadow his hidden aggression. George is given perhaps the most complex role as Amy. With David, she is playful and needing of attention, and often portrays the character as a naive schoolgirl. Things change as she becomes the object of desire for the workmen, where she puts up a callous front as the strong and defiant modern woman. During the notorious rape scene, she struggles with her own faithfulness and sexual desires, having been pushed aside and ignored by David for so long. This scene should not be interpreted as her submittal to the rape, but rather to her own wants. Her horrified reaction when Scutt joins in shows a shift to her true objection and violation. Although she constantly berates David for being a coward, we find in the end that she is the more fearful and hesitant of the two.
STRAW DOGS unleashes a raw and gritty violence that is unrelenting and unforgiving once the events unfold in the end. Peckinpah holds nothing back, and puts all of the graphic scenes on full display. This is, again, a major point of dispute for many film critics, who conclude that Peckinpah looks to exploit the bloody action. If this were the case, the struggle between the Sumners and their aggressors would have occurred much earlier on in the picture. Instead, Peckinpah takes a much more timely approach to the violence, and the final assault on the home becomes a metaphor for David's collapsing psyche. It is extreme, yes, but this is in direct contrast to the bloodless first and second acts.
As far as story and character development are concerned, STRAW DOGS outperforms any other film about rape and revenge. It marks a tremendous shift in movie making as a whole, and is considered by many to be Sam Peckinpah's greatest work.
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