Thursday, 11 November 2010

Straw Dogs (Sam Peckinpah, 1971)

The same year that Kubrick’s futuristic droogs coshed their way into the nation’s psyche, Peckinpah presented his own grueling vision of England’s unpleasant, green and gruesome land. Instead of Kubrick’s concrete jungle, we have a remote corner of Cornwall, where cruelty and sexual psychosis combine to assault viewers in another, equally terrible manner.
   To suit the story, old stereotypes about working class country folk are fully reinforced; they are primitive and predatory, backward and barmy. Soon afterwards, John Boorman would deliver the same verdict and an equally terrible rape scene in another adaptation of a novel. Hillbilly Americans or West Country folk, they serve the purpose of portraying wickedness out there in the heart of darkness, beyond civilisation.
   Landis’s ‘American Werewolf In London’ also springs to mind as David (Dustin Hoffman), the mathematician, pops into the pub for some fags, entering what looks now like an archaic world where darts-playing appears almost pagan. He soon gets a taste of things to come when he witnesses the response of Tom Hedden (Peter Vaughan) to being refused one more pint.
   The problematic sexuality is also signaled early on, not just by a bra-less Amy (Susan George) walking down the street, but the barely post-pubescent Sally Thomsett striding out in high heels and mini skirt. Her eager flirtations will prove pivotal to the story, but in the meantime we see Amy, David’s wife, engage with her past, and learn that she has had an (unwilling?) encounter with someone from the village, the nature of which remains ambiguous.
   Amy’s willingness or otherwise becomes a major issue in the infamous rape scene. Is it acceptable to the viewer that she should, after resistance, enjoy sex with her attacker? Almost as disturbing as the rape itself is the implication that she may even harbor a secret love of her assailant. This would undermine her whole relationship with David, his opposite in every way. What follows is clearly unacceptable to either the viewer or Amy, and it added fuel to the flames of outrage that have consumed this film ever since.
   Janice (Thomsett) flirts with David (and we sense his attraction), whilst Amy (unknowingly?) flirts with the workmen renovating their house, Peckinpah giving the overtly male perspective as she reveals herself whilst getting out of the Triumph Stag. Is that car here by chance, or does its name also resonate with the theme of sexual prowess?
   Nothing here is clear-cut, and there are no simple, easy moral standpoints available, not even David’s last stand, which results in carnage yet is based, not on his knowledge of what has happed to his wife, but that old adage of an Englishman’s home being his castle. So here is an American defending his castle, along with some notion of fair play, to the near-death. ‘This is my home, this is me’, he states in defiance of those who would penetrate his very being.
   The event which triggers David’s defence of his realm brings to mind Frankenstein’s creation and its inability to know either its own strength, or mind; a tragic naivety, heightened here by a weakness for misplaced sexual longing.
   Peckinpah handles the final orgy of violence as expertly as you would expect. The combined effect of windows constantly being smashed to the tune of recorded bagpipe-playing, as chosen by David, is brilliantly incongruous and jarring. When it’s all over, we can still hear the needle running in the grooves at the end of the disc, the crackling absence of real content which echoes the post-mayhem emptiness and playing out of David’s blood-lust.

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